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luck of the rabbit
Please post your entries for the exhibition >>/gensokyo/17300 in this thread.
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Once upon a time, in the Human Village, there was a boy named Takeo. Takeo was a very happy child, but also a very unlucky one.

One day, he and his friends were playing with a ball. Suddenly, one of them kicked it under someone’s house. “I’ll get it!” Takeo said happily. When he stuck his hand underneath the house, he felt a stinging sensation on his hand. “YOWCH!” he cried. When he looked down at his hand, he saw two little holes in it. The skin around the holes was an angry red and was beginning to swell. He began crying and ran all the way home. When he found his mother, he showed her his hand.

“Takeo!” the boy’s mother gasped. “What happened?!”

“I was playing with my friends, and the ball went under a house. When I tried to grab it, something bit me!” The bite was red and swollen.

She scolded him and grabbed his arm. “Come with me! I’m taking you to the clinic!” She led him out of the village and into a forest of bamboo. They walked for a long time, but they couldn’t find the clinic. Eventually they found a pretty woman with long, white hair. “Excuse me!” Takeo’s mother called out. “Do you know how to get to the clinic?”

“Yes, I do,” the woman said. “Follow me, or else you’ll get lost!”

When they finally got to the clinic, Takeo’s mother said, “I’m so glad we found you! We truly are blessed! May the gods bless you in turn!” Then she hugged the pretty woman. They went inside, and a girl with bunny ears led them to the doctor.

“It sure is lucky you got here before nightfall!” the bunny-girl said.

“Indeed,” the doctor lady replied. “And this wound doesn’t look terrible. It will be very easy to treat.” And so the doctor gave him some medicine. It was bitter, but his wound was cured very quickly! The doctor lady smiled and patted him on the head for being such a good boy.

Poor Takeo, the temple school teacher thought to herself. Every day he comes to class, a student spills his ink on his paper, a bird steals his lunch box, and he gets another injury. It’s never anyone’s fault, but these things just keep happening. She snapped her fingers. Ah-hah! That’s it! Poor Takeo has accumulated too much bad luck! The next day, she brought this up to the boy.

He replied, “Gosh, Teacher, that would explain a lot! But I don’t think I’m that unlucky. After all, whenever those kinds of things happen, I’m lucky my friends are there to help me out!”

“I see. That’s good to hear, but we should still fix this problem before it gets worse.”

After class, the teacher brought Takeo to Youkai Forest. They were attacked many times on their journey, but the teacher was able to protect them every time. Eventually, they came to a river where the misfortune goddess was collecting Nagashi-bina dolls. “Hello, Lady misfortune goddess,” the teacher greeted her. “I’d like your help in taking away this boy’s misfortune.”

“Hello, Ms. Teacher,” the goddess replied. “I’d be happy to!” She began spinning around for so long that Takeo was worried she was going to be sick. When she stopped, though, she looked completely fine, smiling bigger than she had before. “You had a lot of misfortune in you, but it’s all gone now. Take care now!”

The two thanked the goddess and started their journey back. They didn’t get far, however, when a fox came barreling out of the brush and knocked Takeo into the river as it ran past. The women gasped before the misfortune goddess took off after the boy, diving into the river herself. She was able to grab onto him before he could get very far and brought him to shore. “Oh my goodness, Takeo! Are you alright?!”

The boy coughed for a while before he spoke. “I’m alright, Lady misfortune goddess. It was lucky you were able to save me!”

One day, when Takeo was all grown up, he was carrying a bag of rice to the Hakurei shrine. He hadn’t gotten very far up the long staircase when a youkai came out of the bushes! It bit down on his leg, and he fell over, tumbling down the stairs with the youkai still biting down on him! It only let go when the Hakurei shrine maiden showed up and exterminated it. “Oh no!” she gasped. “Are you injured?!”

He was very injured. Some of his bones had been broken, and his forehead was leaking blood. He nodded.

“Oh no… Oh no!” The shrine maiden carefully lifted him up and flew him to her shrine. She bandaged his leg and his head then ran to the door. “Wait here, okay? I’m going to go get help, okay?” He nodded, and the girl flew away. Eventually she returned with the doctor. She set his bones and gave him medicine that help his bones heal. When the doctor left, Takeo tried to push himself up. “What are you doing?!” the shrine maiden asked.

“I should be going home, shouldn’t I? I don’t want to make you take care of me.”

“Don’t leave, stupid! I’m going to nurse you back to health, stupid!”

“Really…?! Gosh… That’s really nice of you, Miss Hakurei! I sure am lucky!”

When Takeo was fully healed, the Hakurei shrine maiden escorted him back to the village. “Thanks again for everything, Miss Hakurei.”

“You’re welcome. I couldn’t just let you die, after all!”

A week later, Takeo took two bags of rice and began walking to the Hakurei shrine. He got to the top of the stairs and saw the Hakurei shrine maiden sipping tea. “Takeo?!” she gasped. “What are you doing here?! It’s dangerous, and you’re still limping!”

“I wanted to thank you for your help,” Takeo replied with a smile. He handed the sacks of rice to the shrine maiden.

The shrine maiden took the bags from him. “You shouldn’t be here, stupid! You need to take it easy, stupid!” Before Takeo could apologize to her, she grabbed by the arm and took him inside. “I’ll make you some food. As thanks. I was almost out of rice anyway.”

“Then it’s a good thing I showed up when I did!” Takeo smiled. “How lucky!”

The next week, the shrine maiden was in the village. She knocked on Takeo’s door and waited for a response. When he opened the door, she said, “Hi! I was just passing by and thought I’d check on you.”

“Oh!” Takeo gasped. “Hi! Come in! I’ll put on some tea!”

The shrine maiden entered his home, and the two chatted happily about many things.

Months of both of them visiting each other passed. One day, when Takeo was visiting the shrine, he stood in front of her, fidgeting strangely. “Um… Miss shrine maiden…? Do you think… you would want to get a meal together with me…?” he asked nervously.

“I’d love to!” the shrine maiden replied happily.

“G-great! Is now a good time?”

The girl nodded. “Of course!”

The two searched the whole village for a restaurant to seat them, but they were all full! Before they had decided to give up completely, Takeo said, “You’re always cooking for me, so how about I cook for you instead?”

“Okay!” the shrine maiden answered. “That sounds wonderful!”

So the two went to his home, and Takeo made them a simple meal, putting all his effort into making it perfect. He smiled as the Hakurei shrine maiden hummed happily at the taste of his cooking. After the meal, they chatted for hours until long after night fell.

As Takeo was walking her back to the shrine, he stopped and bowed to her. “Um, miss shrine maiden… Please let me be your sweetheart!”

“Y-your sweetheart…?!” the girl gasped. “Oh gosh! I’ve never been anyone’s sweetheart before! Oh gosh! Um, okay!”

“Really?! WAHOO!” Takeo cried. “I must be the luckiest guy in Gensokyo!”

A year passed, and then, one day, the newspaper said that the Hakurei shrine maiden was getting married. However, on that fateful day, a great and terrible typhoon swept through Gensokyo! Cats were clinging onto trees for their lives, oxen were thrown through the sky, and even the tengu had all their feathers plucked by the strong winds! No one was able to show up to the wedding, and the Hakurei shrine maiden wept bitterly at her luck.

Takeo, though, wasn’t deterred!

He carried three sacks of rice to weigh himself down as he climbed up the steps to the Hakurei shrine—where the love of his life awaited! Not the whipping winds!—not the crashing thunder!—not the flashing lightning would stop him from walking the cobblestone path to the shrine!

He stomped up the wooden steps—THUMP! THUMP! THUMP!—he threw open the door—WHABAM!—and he threw down the rice sacks—BOOM!

Only when the bags hit the floor did the Hakurei shrine maiden realize that her love had entered. “Takeo!” she gasped. “What are you doing here?! It’s dangerous outside!”

“Why, it’s our wedding day, of course! Did you really think I would miss it for anything?!”

The shrine maiden began weeping again. “You stupid man! You could have been killed! Don’t be stupid!”

When Takeo pulled her into his arms, he said, “But I wasn’t, so there’s no need for tears.”

The shrine maiden smiled and murmured, “I must be the luckiest woman in Gensokyo…”

Nine months later, the Hakurei shrine maiden gave birth to twins: two healthy baby girls.

The midwives began whispering among themselves, and one left to fetch Takeo. When she told him the news, he wasn’t afraid. He smiled, tears pricking in his eyes. He dashed into the room and stared in awe at his newborn daughters. He gently took them from his wife and held them close. “Twins…” he spoke, his voice no louder than a breath.

“We must be the luckiest parents in Gensokyo,” the couple spoke at the same time.

The End
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It’s a quiet day, as I like. There are many ways to pass the time, some very exhilarating, others collected. Mine is often associated with the former.

I puff a hit of smoke from my pipe, my pride and joy. Smoking isn’t what I’m referring to, though. No, the pass time that I prefer and give to the people of this land of Gensokyo is that of gambling. In this room suffocated by my pipe smoke there are many Youkai of all creeds who roll dice, draw cards, some even bring in tiles on occasion. The majority of my regulars are tengu, kappa, various Youkai that live on this mountain aptly titled Youkai Mountain. Over the ages everyone began to look closer and closer to humans in appearance, until one day I noticed that my own robes were filled with someone I didn’t quite recognize. Not the worst thing to happen to a species called the mountain hag.

The changing times didn’t stop anyone from enjoying risky calls or having luck be in their favor, no. I would say it let them enjoy their pastime even more than before, now collecting the remnants of the world we left behind to take in as we wish. Things such as card games from the Western world or new house rules for the games we already knew.

A couple weeks ago one such little munchkin came into my den. She was as scared as a rabbit, lost in the pool of people already playing many games. When I checked what her scrawny, hooded self wanted, she clammed up, only able to get out a silly stubble of words. One word was easy enough to guess, Koi-Koi. Technically two words, but I don’t like splitting hairs.

I didn’t let the nervous thing spend another word. I pride myself on keeping the den relaxed for all of my patrons, after all, even if the games might get a little rowdy. Sometimes that means taking a few extra measures, other times it means listening to the wants of those patrons. A game of Koi-Koi is so simple I could do it in my sleep, so I used the time to prod for what the child truly wanted.

The girl proposed a slight change before we started. She didn’t know the tengu came up with the same changes, however. They proposed the ‘one season’ rule to me before, having only three rounds of the game to bank in points. It was always too high stakes for me to properly join, so I would stay a spectator. I allowed the girl her funny little nuance, not only to ease her nerves, but also because I like hearing game rules from other places.

And it was obvious she wasn’t from Gensokyo. A hooded top is far from a normal outfit in our world, only being adopted by the kappa’s raincoats from time to time. I couldn’t prick her for information at the time given how I could spook her off oh so easily.

After our game, which she won handily with some focus, she was calm enough to join other patrons. I allowed her to go without any questions, but I made sure to check with the regulars and see what they thought about her. Not many had words of wisdom, but one rare guest, that lazy old shinigami, pointed out that the girl was an animal realm soul.

I’ve had souls come by on occasion, those meandering before heading to the Sanzu river or those visiting from the Netherworld, but never one from the animal realm. It put me on guard, and as it happens, this girl came back. Every day I was open on the False Heaven Shelf she would find the den. I make sure to change the location to a different building on the cliff side plateau every day I open to ward off any unsavory types, but she never had an issue finding me. Supposedly, she checked my locations even on days that I go to the human village. I had a bit of a stalker on my hands. That or a terrible gambling addict.

This had been going for two weeks, until today. I opened the same time as always. The early afternoon is where I can catch both those Youkai just waking up for the night and those finishing their daily duties. She’s part of the early crew, coming in right when I hang my dragon ornament on the door.

Today she’s nowhere to be seen. Some of the other regulars even asked after her. I reminded them that asking about a girl her size made them sound like lechers. Quickest way to shut anyone up.

Nothing seemed to happen for the rest of the day. The only thing to notify me of the passing time is the smell of smoke seeping into the walls. One of the less than savory parts of my leisure habit, but also better than any clock I could use.

I shuffle away the patrons for the night, reminding them they need to go home at some point. Once the last of the drunkards shuffle out, I get to cleaning up. Grab the games, grab the tables, grab the seat pads, snuff the lights. I’m close to finishing when I hear the sliding paper door shuffle.

First a little tanuki girl I don’t know steps in, but while I usually tell off idiots that come in late, my gut tells me to hold for a second. She spots me across the room with the remaining candlelight and waves someone else in. More than one, actually. Two larger, slicked up men in fine foreign dress step in first, splitting past the entry to usher in who I assume to be their boss.

A woman dressed in Chinese attire steps in, brandishing two golden antlers, a spiny turtle’s shell, and a dragon’s tail. I know a lot of things, enough to say that the sharp eyes staring me down is from one of the gang bosses of the Animal Realm of Hell, Yachie Kicchou. Her tail slithers along the ground as she steps my way, flanked by the large men.

The little tanuki girl waves in one more, the hooded girl.

That explains one thing, but there’s so many more questions in its place. I take a few seat pads from the stack I made and set them down, relighting a candle to a holder before settling onto one and taking a hit from my pipe, attempting to remain casual.

“Miss Komakusa,” Kicchou greets. “May I take this seat here?”

“Sure,” I simply reply.

She relaxes down to her knees, sitting properly but with an aura that suggests anything but. Her quaint smile is uncanny as she asks, “And who is the third meant for?”

“The little one there.” I point to the hooded girl with my pipe. Kicchou looks back and tilts her head for the girl to come forward.

The little thing looked nervous on her first day in the den, so I can tell now that she’s downright terrified sitting next to Kicchou. I release a puff of smoke their way and she loosens her nerves waving the cloud from her face.

“Do you know who I am?” Kicchou asks me.

“No,” I lie. “You know who I am but not my hours?”

“Correct. Funny that you would not try to drive us out after hours.”

“Who am I not to hear someone with an escort out? Clearly you have some position of importance, even if I’m unrelated.”

Kicchou smirks at the comment. “As it happens, not entirely. This little one has been using my group’s money for her little bad habit.”

A bad habit, huh? I know how easy it is for my enjoyable activity to be more than a leisurely sport. “So it was an addiction, then. I thought the little thing was stalking me,” I confirm, if only a little more for myself.

“Oh, no. She doesn’t have the guts for it.”

I chuckle, “Well that explains quite a bit for me. Thank you for clearing up the misunderstanding. If that’s all I need to prepare for opening tomorrow.”

“Oh, you needn’t do that,” Kicchou states. “In fact, there’s no need to move to another house at all.”

I pause, building up smoke in my lungs, waiting for the gang boss to continue. She keeps a placid smile, clearly waiting for me as well.

I decide the awkward silence isn’t worth the trouble. “What do you mean?” I fold, letting her know that I have no idea what she’s talking about.

She shifts her grin, the angle reminds me of the tanuki when they think they have a new clever way to cheat. Reaching to the back of her skirt, Kicchou takes out a roll of paper. She unfurls it under her chin, popping the sheet tight for emphasis. I reach up taking the lit candle from its stand before leaning in, the light of the room is terrible for this nonsensically small writing.

Kicchou guards the paper away from the light, complaining, “No damaging the goods. If you can’t read it, it’s a deed.”

“No, I’ll read it, I’d like to see what’s got you so excited.”

She pushes the paper my way again, keeping a very tight grip on the page such that I wouldn’t be able to snatch it from her. How very rude of her to assume my upstanding character would stoop so low. I squint, barely able to tell one word from another, but with enough time I start to put context to what she said.

This… ‘deed,’ if you could call it that, looks to be giving ownership of the entirety of the False Heaven Shelf to this bitch. The thing is, this should be unclaimed land from any particular group, as far as I remember. That’s why I’m able to open in any old abandoned house. I haven’t really laid claim myself, since I wanted to be able to move in case any big shot tengu got uppity, but I haven’t thought about that in years.

“Whose signature is this at the bottom?” I ask.

“One high tengu. You needn’t worry about who specifically,” the turtle claims.

“I think I do need worry,” I argue, waving about my pipe. “In case you haven’t noticed, I run an establishment here. And there. And out of several other buildings.”

“Well, now you run it out of here and here alone. You are now under my jurisdiction as I own you.”

My head jolts by reflex. “Come again?”

“Oh, sorry, poor phrasing,” she chuckles to herself. “I meant that I own your business here if you plan to continue squatting. I won’t bother taking any land tax from you, however.”

I stare at her for a moment, trying to understand what the hell is going on. “So… hold on.”


I point with my pipe and start, “You bought the rights to this land from a high tengu?”

“Yes, I did.” She rolls up the page back into her skirt, taking great care to not fold it in any way.

“Who said that this land was available? Since when?”

“Since about a month ago. Did you not hear about the release of ownership of the lands?” she explains.

“Well, sure I did, but this land was already unowned. It wouldn’t affect me,” I point out.

Kicchou steeples her hands and announces, “Then after the tengu reclaimed their lands, it seems they decided to claim the places here, too.”

I lick at my lips, stowing a frown with a pensive lip purse. This isn’t the best situation to be in. What should I do from this position? While being kicked out isn’t good, not owning my own home isn’t much better. Ahh, I should have set up a backup location away from the shelf, but then I wouldn’t attract the same crowd that’s been so good to me…

“Now, now,” Kicchou snaps at me to look at her. “This is no different than you are right now. You’ll just be under a higher management. There’s no problem here, right?”

Something about how she said that… why does it feel wrong? I mean, she is wrong, right? I… I don’t take this sitting down. But what choice do I have?

The sliding door opens again, and in files three tengu in white. The wolf tengu, and their patrol weapons. These aren’t late gamblers.

“And who is this visiting the mountain” their leader, Inubashiri, greets all of us.

“Only someone who doesn’t like interruptions from the small fries,” Kicchou warns with an unfriendly grimace.

The wolf puffs at the comment. “I think doing my job is more important than your wants. I don’t remember you being allowed on this mountain. Anywhere on the mountain, in fact.”

“My, how about that? I have a little paper here that says otherwise,” Kicchou counters. She wields the rolled paper once more, handing it to one of the large suited men. He crosses the room, unfurling it for the tengu to view. “See the signature at the bottom?”

The wolves look across to Kicchou and back to the bottom of the paper. One of them exclaims, “Captain! That’s lady Iizunamaru’s name!”

Inubashiri leans forward and ponders, “Is she even allowed to make property decisions after she was part of that incident with the market god?”

Kicchou fixes her eyes on the three, stating with a malicious smile, “I bought her signature to that contract, so you’d better hope there was real rights traded. You’ll all have hell to pay otherwise.”

The tengu aren’t happy to hear such an open threat, but also don’t have a way to counter such a bold claim. It’s weird that one of their own would sell land, but it’s not unheard of. My own sisters have staked claim to their land without tengu privileges, after all.

“Even if it’s all the case, I want to personally see that this is true, so if you could leave the area for now, miss Kicchou,” Inubashiri attempts to remain diplomatic about the situation. It’s impressive how she’s staying calm. I’ve seen her drag off her coworkers shirking their duties. I’d mistaken her for an oni on multiple occasions because of the experience.

“No, I don’t believe I will,” Kicchou remains implacable. “I most certainly have a real claim to these buildings in this region of the mountain. I will not be pushed out from what is rightfully mine.”

Inubashiri stares for a moment, then closes her eyes to take a deep breath. Once she cycles out her disbelief she orders the other two wolves, “Return to the village. I will oversee this ‘guest’ until you can bring Iizunamaru herself here.”

One of the wolves gives a worried look and beggars, “But captain, you being here alone is–“

She holds a hand up to stop her underling. “I could do worse than a night with this crowd,” she jokes. I’m not sure if I should resent that comment.

With Inubashiri here it does stop anything physical from taking place. I have a feeling that’s the last thing Kicchou wants, too. But on that thought, what does Kicchou want? Hasn’t she said her piece? There’s not much I can do to change my fate.

Inubashiri travels across the room and stops behind me, releasing a great sheathed sword from her belt and stands it against the tatami mats. She rests her hands atop its end and stares at the crowd around her, keeping watch from her new station.

“What were you all discussing before I interrupted?” she questions.

“I don’t see a reason to tell you,” Kicchou bickers at the interloper, receiving her precious document once more.

I puff a bit of smoke through my nostrils at her disagreeable attitude, and answer the wolf, “We were discussing how she owns all of the buildings, and so she would own my place, too.”

“Is that what really happened?” Inubashiri drills into the back of my head, further digging, “You finally gambled your own den away? I always thought you were the type to do that, miss Komakusa.”

“That’s not a nice thing to say to an acquaintance, miss Inubashiri,” I retort, not daring to challenge the intense glare of the forever seeing guard dog.

“We are only acquainted in that I need to drag my comrades from your disgusting habit.”

“That I will not stand to hear,” I proclaim, turning to face the dog in a newly found fervor. “Gambling is no nasty habit for those that can restrain themselves properly.”

Inubashiri shows her ire, interjecting, “Madame, that is no excuse for–“

“It is no different from swimming in water: exercising for the mind to those who know how to and a horrid death to those who don’t know their limits. The thrill of a game of chance is meant to keep in check even those who can tell me the weather next week while allowing beginners the chance to jump in without always being outmatched.”

Inubashiri attempts to interject again, “Madame that’s no argument for–“

I take a hit from my pipe before continuing my tirade, blowing wafts of smoke for the first several words, “I’m here because I want to give others the same love for these games of chance that I have. Some fools don’t realize they aren’t cut out for it after their beginner’s luck fades, and they’re always the problematic ones that cause a ruckus.”

“Alright, Madame Komakusa, you’ve made your–” Inubashiri relents, backing up with her weapon and warding away smoke as I get into her face.

“What I want are those that understand what makes a game of chance so enjoyable. Those that know not only how to play, but how to play with the odds, not against them. I had to take so many years to learn it myself and even then I’m no master of fate. I can still lose hands. I can even lose games. But I enjoy playing. This is no ‘disgusting habit!’”

I hear a bit of shifting behind me, followed by a concerned, “Is she… alright?”

I glance back to Kicchou, leaning over from her seat with a concerned look. She seems interested in how I could sway this guard so.

The dog stows her arrogant attitude for the moment and plugs her nose of the smoke to answer, “The madame here is an avid gambler. It’s impressive she let you have a conversation before playing a game.”

“You can only be so rude before I dismiss you myself,” I warn. Even if this hell woman is insisting that she owns the den, I am still its madame. “Though, I can’t argue with wanting to play a game with someone so prominent.”

“Oh?” Kicchou utters, raising her eyebrows at the offer. “That would be quite the challenge for a novice gambler such as myself to play against the owner of a gambling parlor, would it not?”

“No such thing,” I persist, returning to my seat and flashing the dangerous woman a smile. “Games are meant for all ages, creeds, and skill levels. Like I said, games of chance are to allow even beginners the chance to win.”

Kicchou rubs her chin to hum, “Perhaps it will pass the time, if we’re to wait. What do you propose?”

“Well, you’re little one here gave me quite the idea of a game the other day,” I note, pointing at the little minx wearing a hood. “A variant of Koi-Koi of all things.”


“Yes, the little quirk of having only three rounds. I assume your group had come to the same idea as the tengu.”

Kicchou turns to the small girl and questions, “You didn’t tell her anything besides those rules, did you? Everyone in the holt will be mad that their game is something the world of the living has.” She turns to one of the men escorting her and adds, “Take her home. I will need to think of a suitable punishment for the little miscreant when I’m back.”

The man grunts in affirmation and picks the girl up from her seat. I expect her to be horrified at the possibility of punishment, but she seems more depressed. This must not be the first time for her.

As she’s dragged off I get up and fetch a set of hanafuda cards from the wooden chests I store game materials in. I take a well worn set, tied up with a frayed string, and grab a table with my other hand, my pipe tucked between my lips. I take care to place the set up to my guest, ensuring she doesn’t need to move to play. She’s found her smile again, her wickedness hidden by the most baseline of body language.

I adjust my seat to across the table and untie the cards. I take a few moments to make sure the cards are all accounted for. While I don’t expect cheating from my other patrons, some do come with their own alcohol, and plenty of it. As I finish flicking through the cards my pipe has trouble smoking up. I puff it from my lips a few times before a hand brings in one of the set aside ash trays.

“You should really see to yourself before your game, madame,” Inubashiri grouses, moving back to her post. I hadn’t thought about it before, but she must not be happy to have such a heavy musk of smoke in the room.

“Feel free to open the windows if the smoke is thick,” I offer the temperamental guard.

“Never mind me.”

I puff in humor at her stubbornness. The wolves are all too proud to admit when they’re having it hard, but neither am I so nice that I’d save her from her complaints.

“Now, since we are gambling, there should be some kind of pot…” I whim, making sure to keep my attitude light.

“Oh?” Kicchou shows her interest once again in what is going through my head.

“Money would be a little droll for someone like yourself… What about I formally hand over the gambling den and its supplies should you win?”

The little tanuki girl gasps in shock, doing a poor job of hiding herself in the corner. The remaining escort clears his throat to stifle the same reaction.

Kicchou takes a moment to interpret my seriousness, unsure if I was joking, and beggars, “You’re not serious, are you? I’ve already told you that you can keep this building. Money would be fine, I had my coffers plundered by a certain little pilferer, you know.”

“Oh, here we go…” Inubashiri moans.

“Shush, hound,” I scold, clicking my pipe against the ash tray again. “And I’m sure about this wager, since there wouldn’t be any fun in a game of chance where neither side loses or gains, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Wha-? But, that’s just causing yourself trouble. It’s just mad,” Kicchou argues.

“Mad? No, mad would be destroying everything out of spite. This is a game which is to give all rights of the den to one side or the other.”

“Wait, what?!” Kicchou loses her composure into a spot of anger. “How did the conversation come to this? I already own the rights to this building, I’m allowing you to stay here free of charge!”

“It’s what happens when you talk to Madame Komakusa. Everything ends up being about smoking or gambling. She’s only looking for something to keep her interest,” Inubashiri gracefully comments, sounding equally worn down by the trail of events.

“If that’s enough commentary from the unfriendly spectator,” I assert to head the conversation, pointing the deck of cards to the tanuki girl, “we could use a proper dealer for this game. Changing dealers each turn is too much busy work.”

The girl points to herself in question, the silly oversized coat they wear trailing down her arm. I nod back. Tanuki tend to keep themselves quiet and gather information, but make a good third party mediator when strong armed into it. She pokily takes the set from me, her hands trembling at the weight of the task.

“You’ll be fine, little thing,” I cheer for the girl. “You’ve just gotta pass and shuffle the cards, no stress.”

She looks between a perturbed Kicchou and I, still uncertain but not voicing any complaints.

“So, do you need a reminder of the rules, Kicchou?” I ask of the woman with fingers to her forehead.

“I haven’t agreed to play, you realize? What would I gain even if I win?” Kicchou interrogates.

“My worldly possessions and the house all to yourself?” I act like I’m asking in return. “I think that’s enough to warrant a game. Hell, the tengu might really hate it if you had full privacy.”
“I…” she starts to contend, but gives it a second thought. “You know what, there might be a valid point you just made. So sure. And I know the rules. The basics. The winning hands are easy to remember, but I might need a reminder for what hands extend or have multiple win conditions.”

I don’t fully buy into the idea that she’s a beginner, but I’m not sure if she thinks I’ve caught onto that. It’s hard to say how that might even come up, if at all. We’ve likely been lying around each other this entire time.

The tanuki girl passes the cards in pairs. Her hands are practiced in the motion, taking very little time to pass eight to me, Kicchou, and the table.

“So who goes first when you have a third person dealing,” Kicchou asks, investigating her cards against the ones on the table.

I answer, looking through my own draw, “Let’s just say the guest gets that privilege. I’m sure you don’t see any issue with that, Kicchou?”

“That sounds fine by me, Madame.”

“Oh, please. We’re playing each other, so call me Komakusa,” I insist.

“Very well, Komakusa,” Kicchou sniffs.

The objective of Koi-Koi is to gather collections of point earning cards. Unlike a game such as poker, though, each player has information to a third of the cards at all times, with more information as the round goes on. With each turn a player uses a card in their hand to capture a card of matching flora from the table or leave it as a piece in play. After that they draw a card from the remaining deck and repeat the capturing or leaving. With the turns being so simple it doesn’t sound like there’s much player strategy beyond hoping for lucky draws, but the order you capture things in is important.

Looking at my own cards I have an alright hand in terms of the value of the cards, but the field has only one match right now.

Actually, on second glance, I have a very defensive hand that could score me well if I play it right. All four of my non chaff cards are part of quick point sets. The deer is part of a three card set worth five points, so is the poetry ribbon, and the blue ribbon. The real standout is drawing the cherry blossom curtain, part of a two card set with the sake dish that I also have a matching chaff to capture.

“Hm,” I hear from behind me. Inubashiri is trying to act like she isn’t hovering around, but woefully fails at doing so.

“This isn’t a game of go. Sit by the dealer if you wish to watch,” I scold the hound.

She shuffles by the tanuki girl as Kicchou makes her first move. She takes a blue ribbon from the field, a sound play to take high value cards from the field first and foremost. I can rest easy knowing that I have the last in that set, however. She draws a cherry blossom poetry card from the deck but doesn’t have a match on the table.

Looks like my best play will be going for the poetry ribbons, since the last one is still on the field. It’s only too bad I won’t directly take it. The cherry curtain puts me in a dominant position for multiple high value win conditions, so Kicchou will look to close the round with a fast and low score if she knows about it.

“So what is the point of this?” Kicchou asks, keeping her cards tight to herself as she leans against the table.

“Whatever do you mean? We’re playing a game,” I claim. She shifts her mouth in doubt, but shelves the thought for now.

Sadly, I’ve never been as dexterous with cheating in cards like I am with dice, so this is an honest game. Most people would say it’s foolish to make such a high stake bet like I have without intending to cheat to victory. To me it sounds like a fun turn of fate to let life go whichever way it decides.

Like I said, gambling should have stakes involved.

We continue through the round, quickly securing me the last poetry ribbon. A quick five points if I call the round over as is. It’s possible for me to go after two more of the nine ribbons to reach seven points and double my score, but two of them are in Kicchou’s scoring pool while four are in mine. I have one in my hand, but the last two could be anywhere in the deck. Overall not a fantastic idea.

“Shobu,” I call to end the round.
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“Spread your cards for me to see, please,” the dealer requests as I set down my hand.

Kicchou squints at the last blue ribbon I was holding onto, knowing that she’d played into my defensive strategy. Maybe she truly is a beginner.

“Three poetry ribbons, no other yaku, so five points for the Madame,” the tanuki girl quietly states, as if not to further disturb Kicchou.

We hand the cards back and begin a new round. While the tanuki is busy dealing I decide it would be good to converse a little more. Koi-Koi was designed as a simple game so that you could talk to others while doing it.

“You said your people play this in some kind of ‘holt,’ was it?” I make small talk. “Do they have gambling nights?”

Kicchou smirks when replying, “If only. They seem to play games instead of doing actual work. It’s what happens when all of your subordinates are otters.”

“Sounds like the kappa,” I chuckle. I still can’t pin how well she knows the game. It would be strange if she didn’t know something her subordinates do regularly.

My next hand is decent, but doesn’t reassure me against possible fast plays. Two lights, but the phoenix and the rain man don’t make any desirable combinations unless there are more lights on the field. A blue ribbon in hand and on the board is something to work towards, though. We go through the turns in a similar motion, I grab ribbons as soon as they come up but Kicchou doesn’t seem to build anything but chaff.

I draw a chrysanthemum to the table, nothing to pair with. I get a bad feeling about that, and Kicchou’s skewed face contemplating her next move only makes it worse. She plays the sake dish card, the only card capable of making winning hands using only two cards. Her next turn she plays the full moon, the other card to get that hand. Thankfully, it’s only worth five points, so we should tie.

“Koi-Koi,” she calls. She wants to keep going to try and double her score. That would mean she needs chaff or the cherry blossom curtain to make another win condition. A daring move while I’m close to a win by ribbons.

So long as I can get one ribbon I can still deny her of that. Usually this is meant as a way for me to double my score while she finds her last card, but while I’m already ahead there’s no reason to play for anything but denials.

Of course, all of this knowledge doesn’t help when she draws the cherry blossom curtain into a chaff she placed down. That’s… very lucky. I’m almost a little jealous of it, frankly.

“Shobu,” she ends the round.

Thankfully, she didn’t wait for me to call Koi-Koi myself, which would have quadrupled her points, but she does net a total twenty points, fifteen over me.

We pass the cards back in for the last round. The tanuki girl keeps her pace passing the draws for the last time.

“So, do I keep the pipe, too?” Kicchou taunts. “I think I would look very refined with one.”

“Sorry, but this piece is going with me to the grave, whenever that is,” I hold. “Don’t forget there’s one more round.”

We receive our cards. The set in my hand is not much better than last round. The rain man could net me a victory with more lights, but there’s only one on the field right now and I don’t have cards to capture it or any light in the deck. Kicchou can’t hide a disappointment in her own hand when looking at the field. Whether that is only because she can’t capture that light or because of something else I’ll have to see.

She plays for two chaff, then drawing a full moon. She clicks her tongue when there’s no card to pair it with. The man behind her strikes in a breath as she has to set it down to the table.

She looks behind her, and tells the man, “Go join the other nosy one.” She thumbs over to Inubashiri, who grunts at the provocation. The two guards eye each other as the man steps over to the side of the table.

There are two lights on the table. That could get me somewhere, but again, I don’t have anything to capture it with. I play down a chaff I know is safe, having nothing I can capture. The next draw is a twist, though, as I get a suzuki grass to capture the full moon card with. Kicchou clicks long nails into the table at the quick turnaround.

She’s at a higher score, so she might try and close it out like I did in the first round. It’s a bad situation for me to be in, honestly. But this is where I wanted to be, isn’t it?

The thought did cross my mind that it makes no sense for me to do this. Kicchou is entirely correct to say that I’m causing trouble for myself by making a bet like this. What really drives me to do these things? I’ve often wondered when it was that I first got into these games, these vices. It was certainly long before my appearance changed. It’s funny, the person that once had my skin still had all the same bad ideas as I do now.

Honestly, betting my home and possessions on a single high stakes game? I’m crazy.

“What are you laughing at?” Kicchou pulls me from my inner thoughts.

I glance around at the members of the room, giving me looks ranging from confused to concerned. A smile has crept onto my face enough that I can feel it, to which I add, “I’m just enjoying myself.”

Kicchou furrows her brow, the comment with so little meaning direct or ulterior must be driving her up the wall. There’s nothing to analyze in my self contradictory nature, though. I really just can’t help myself, sometimes.

My next turn comes again, and I decide to play the rain man to the table. The tanuki girl looks at me, mortified by the play. While the rain man himself isn’t much of a high value card, he combines with other lights to make a much higher score, and is in fact the only thing that could score me high enough to win right now.

I draw, a paulownia flower to capture the phoenix that has been on the table since the start. The rain man remains for Kicchou to take as she pleases.

And I can tell what’s going through Kicchou’s mind right now. She’s trying to think through every possible move I could do to get a victory from here. Dissecting the odds that I can pull together something else like ribbons or the board, deer, and butterfly combination. I could be trying to asphyxiate her hand from chaff, stopping a close out victory.

In reality, I’m testing the true limits of my luck.

She plays for more chaff on her turn, netting her eight of ten to win. I play a chaff to the table, and draw a willow seed to take the rain man back. With no chaff remaining on the table, Kicchou is forced to take a seed and a chaff, netting her nine total chaff. She draws a pine ribbon to the field.

Sweat starts to form above her eyes. If she’s nervous now, then that means she doesn’t have one of the last lights, at least. But at this early into the round, finding two cards out of the deck with seventeen cards remaining and then being able to capture it is practically begging for loss.

That’s not what I do, though. I play into my luck.

I set a ribbon to the field and draw.

The room remains silent as we inspect the last card. The crane and the sun. A light.

“A yaku?” Inubashiri cautiously determines.

“Three lights… and three lights with rain man. Two yaku worth five and two. Twelve points to double and make twenty four…” the tanuki girl announces, stunned by the egregious play.

“Shobu,” I call.

“That’s…” Kicchou shows a lapse in thought. “… That’s not possible, right? How the hell?”

“That is what they would call great luck, Miss Kicchou,” Inubashiri comments.

Kicchou takes a moment to curl in on herself, forcing down a rising anger. Mounting frustration overcomes her will, though, as she slips her hands under the table and flips it straight over herself. The tanuki girl falls over in surprise, and Inubashiri lifts her weapon from the ground. I remain calmly seated.

“Nobody’s that lucky! I don’t believe you won, you clearly cheated!” she yells, the facade of calm sophistication giving way to some unrecognizable bratty girl.

She approaches me and raises her long nails, but Inubashiri and her own bodyguard are quick to step in and keep her back.

“You’d better get up and say something,” Inubashiri kindly suggests.

I hit my pipe, the soot clogging up again. “That was all purely luck, Kicchou. If you want someone to complain to, there’s several gods who smiled at me just now.”

Inubashiri looks back and rants, “That’s not what I–“

Kicchou shouts over her guard as the poor man attempts to sate her fury, “You can’t just– I already own this place, there’s no way this was a contractual bet!”

“Ei!” the tanuki girl shouts as she pounces from behind Kicchou, stealing the rolled paper while the guard was distracted. “This is yours, then.”

I claim the paper from the dutiful girl and clasp my pipe in my lips. Before Kicchou gets a moment to speak, I tear the deed in half. Tearing apart something important is one of those strangely satisfying things that I didn’t think my species was prone to, but I won’t deny the joy. I take the strips and continue to tear them into smaller and smaller pieces, making sure to leave the thing unusable. With my act of ruin finished, I toss the scraps up into a wonderful confetti.

Kicchou is nearly screaming in anger as her bodyguard and Inubashiri see her out. A dramatic end to the night, to be sure. I breath a sigh of relief now that everything has sorted itself out.

The tanuki girl starts to walk out, but I call to her, “And where do you think you’re going, Mamizou?”

She stops in her tracks and slowly looks back to me. I offer her the cushion across from mine, now conspicuously open. She walks back over, her fake nervousness and tiny demeanor shed for the pride and arrogance I expect of tanuki. She drops down, causing an expulsion of smoke around her. The air clears revealing a tanuki twice the girl’s size in her place. One Mamizou Futatsuiwa, leader of the tanuki of Gensokyo.

“When’d you find me out?” she asks, fishing her own pipe from her shirt pocket. The ashtray waddles back to us at her beckon. The thing is a tsukumogami I don’t remember owning.

“Right at the start,” I claim, tapping the soot from my pipe. “None of your girls come here since I don’t let them cheat. If we really want to talk about nasty habits, you might want to talk with them about it.”

“Bah, I’ll sooner teach them to cheat well enough that you don’t notice,” she ignores the point.

“You may need more than luck for that one. Speaking of, you didn’t need to act that shocked at the end. I know you fed me the cards to win,” I point out.

“Hm? What do you mean?” she asks.

“Well, I made you the dealer specifically to rig the last round. There’s no way I could have drawn those cards that naturally. It was a four turn play. It was fun to imagine that I was really pressing my luck that much, though.”

“Uh…” Mamizou utters. I give her a questioning look, and she turns away to continue, “I… didn’t actually do anything. You were so proud of your speech to the tengu earlier that I thought you wanted to win by your own skill.”

I choke on the smoke I was breathing in, coughing my lungs out for some seconds. I look back up at my acquaintance, totally beside myself, and ask, “Nothing..? You did nothing?!”

“I mean… I dealt the cards?” she jokes back.

“I was doing bad plays at the end to taunt her, how in the world did I get four lights like that?! I almost just lost my home! All of my game sets! Mamizou do you not understand how close I almost came to losing everything I had?!”

“I guess those gods really were smiling down on you. And like you said, you’d keep that pipe to the grave.”

I dump the ashtray over her head, the thing’s legs flailing upside down. She puffs through her pipe in reaction, slowly taking the piece from her mouth.

And in true fashion for Youkai, we end up brawling for the rest of the night.
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A piece of paper blew onto Yachie’s face. She crumpled it swatting it off, but then halted the swing of her arm, and carefully unfurled it. A glimpse of the all-red hieroglyphs and illustrations bound her to pay attention at least this time — froze her like a talisman, but more than that, it was rather a page from the Yellow Calendar.

Against her sharp nails, though, the effort was in vain. The top half of the page locating the date crumbled away, blown by another gust into the fire right by her. The columns left on the bottom reported favorable activities. The column for gods was left conspicuously empty — the sure marker that the page was printed in and for the Animal Realm.

“A propitious day for projects and… er, propitiation…”

Squinting to make sense of the lettering, her eyes instead twitched and jumped over to the distance, where eagle goasts carrying an anemometer were ripping through volumes and scattering pages to be carried down by the wind. Six camera crews stood on vantage points for her to count.

“—My ass.”

Another page was caught on Yachie’s right antler, and a third was impaled on the other. An eagle dropped the stack of pages he was holding as another gust blew, and two whole trees manifested itself on Yachie’s head. The eagles suppressed what would’ve been laughter into dry caws.

“Cut!” A wing waved into the air.

“First Cinematurge Takahata, what an exquisite shot,” one of the eagle goasts in an artisan’s overalls smashed his wings together, “Her expression, the line delivery, the atmosphere of it all. Such artistry…”

Somehow, in the burning ruins, the network of public address speakers remained intact, and now broadcasted the words of the eagles in their tent for Yachie to hear. She looked around but none of the cameras were peering right by. The eagles were fine with just filming — and watching — from up above and far away.

“It’d be nothing without your contributions, First Guildmaster Mr. Washitsukuri,” the director, Takahata, repaid the compliment. Despite, or because of, the glimmering badges on his tunic suit, he was the most urgent to show some — any measure of — appreciation in response. As their names indicated, according to the Taxonomy Project of First Namegiver Owashi, he was a hawk; Washitsukuri was an actual eagle and had the luxury of wearing clothing without those weird standing collars. “It must have been really the task, dreaming up this divination calendar, devising a whole plausible system for it. … I don’t even know where to start with it! Just… Like, days that are just bad for doing something? Who could’ve thought of that!” He clapped his wings together and chuckled, rather forcedly.

The Kiketsu matriarch stood in the middle of the single rubble-decked street, and the shot. To the sides were the other eagle goasts sweeping into position. As waves of bangs, flashes, and defenestrated otters propagated through the city, the convocations descended or emerged atop every gable roof. Banners of the Gouyoku Alliance, its various member organizations, and slogans raised and unfurled. Every step was long planned in advance — on the scale of decades, if one accounted for the gaming of legal battles over tunnel and mass transit ownership that now permitted thousands of eagles to spring up from below.

It was a scene like a mural painting, possibly for how everything was already known and set into place, but mostly because, seen only from their side vision, their little moving fellows genuinely appeared flat. Yachie, in the center of their field of view, poked out at them in comparison, but only as something to be grabbed.

“I wouldn’t believe you never went up to the world of the humans — it’s totally something that they would have! Your work is as tremendous as… as… shit. No, I mean, erm, right,” Takahata cleared his throat, “As that of First Idealist Amenohiwashi, who decided we, for all our differences, could all be ‘eagle spiritsbut with some still being more eagle than others, of course.”

And perched side by side, those conversing lay flat in each other’s world too. For the First Anthropologists investigating the cultural effects of wide fields of monocular vision among beast spirits, this was out of an inclination to spite fellow rivals and diminute them before oneself; but if one needed depth perception out of all things on some target, then they could hardly have amicable intentions either.

“Only in that those bodies are now so ordinary,” Washitsukuri said. His tone was hardly meek or deferential, rather he was pressed to be hasty in dispensing all the derision he could — or wanted to put up. “They are meant to be revered only among the primitive and superstitious, after all. … The humans we hold manually inked them, just for the authenticity. … But onto your work. See how Kicchou is played, between our wings, like a puppet. From all of these ordinary scenes and sights!”

“No, no—” Takahata tried to correct and decline the praise, but halted seeing a great shadow cast over him. He had no need to turn to figure out who might sport a feathered headdress as tall as himself in a place like this. It was just etiquette to let the third figure cut in, and to flinch, and to stammer out what words he had left. “Ah, Mr. Kowashi… honorable First Dungeonmaster, must have comments for this… moment. Enlightening ones, I’m sure.”

“Of course,” said Kowashi in a shrill voice, “Be reminded what truly delivers the devouring and swallowing blow can only be…”

Exactly as the screenplay said, Yuuma made her entry, carrying her spork on her back. The lettering on her dress was readable even from this distance, at least under the eyes raptor goasts possessed. She, and the entire scene, then halted some hundred steps ahead of Yachie.

“Everything still according to plan?” Takahata whispered nervously into his microphone.

The other crews just zoomed in their cameras for the trio to see. On their screen, the matriarchs were awkwardly staring at each other, looking around for cues on what to say and do. Not ideal for a cast — though, while Lady Toutetsu can and must be excused, Takahata could see bigger problems with respect to his craft. Shaped to the specifications requested by the body of loyal eagle spirits, Yuuma’s staring eyes and toothy smile were made for the relief engraving, not the moving camera; her expression turned from majestically terrifying to comically freakish with the mere addition of color and movement.

“The Mood Boards have noted a problem with this,” said Washitsukuri.

“It’s also them who keep changing the pre-battle formalities—” Takahata muttered inside his beak, but halted at a mere lift of Kowashi’s head.

“Naturally, as committees set up to discuss matters of tone they should,” said Kowashi, “But know that as it is designed, ‘charisma’ is seldom inborn. And the very possibility of that being a mere endowment or right is unthinkable here.”

“Yes, yes, erm, I think it’s called the true anarchy — that of power,” said Takahata, stuttering, jerking his head around. As the ‘director’ he had the most acting demanded of him. Although it was a ‘creative’ position, it was also a junior, subordinate one. He lived off those who graciously decided to give him a role in their own idiosyncratic attempts at engineering culture; he was only First Cinematurge in the sense of actually being the first to be one, and a Second or Third iteration waited in line to supersede him. “So respect of any kind has always been rare here,” he continued, “And, er, what was it… Yes, we’re supposed to be like, free-thinkers, so the majesty has to be what we voluntarily choose to recognize. Anyway, we eagle spirits are here to compensate for that—”

Right as Yuuma opened her mouth, a grand orchestration from double reed horns, cymbals, and drums exploded out. The sound battered the minds of every last otter unfortunate enough to linger, and drowned out whatever Yuuma spoke. Yachie visibly flinched and grimaced trying to cover her ears.

“To be exact, taken from the music of the ‘East’ in the planes above, that is of those ‘humans’,” Kowashi commented, “… Played when they serve gods and make sacrifices. A score only fitting for this occasion. See how the opposing side is already being subdued.”

Takahata let out a light sigh in relief, which drew long with the droning of the instruments into one of exasperation. Who— which committee in their hectic routine ‘forgiveably’ confused funeral music for the experimental monastic-military style exploring speculative anthropology he wanted? Yet the affected impatient turning of his head stopped abruptly as soon as Kowashi’s imposing presence re-focused in his field of vision.

Despite all the gravity they were working to give this scene, the eagles could now only see Yuuma for what she was offering with regards to themselves. As guild-master, Washitsukuri raked his talons on the ground finding out that it was, again, First Economic-Miracleworker Takagimasao’s sartorial combines which clothed the matriarch on this occasion. Takahata was just glad the scene didn’t need to run on any longer than was professionally recommended; the anticipated fight sequence could now begin. Kowashi crossed his wings, just waiting for the ritual to proceed.

Yuuma drew her spork as energy gathered in Yachie’s hands; both crouched, poising themselves to pounce forward. The eagles merely measured them to be separated by the conventional distance for duelling.

“Can you hear what they’re saying?” Washitsukuri leaned over, his voice fighting the screeching from woodwind and beaks for audience with either of the others. The bone-resonating frequency now coursed through the whole city.

Takahata was about to open his beak when a slight turn of Kowashi’s head froze him in the middle of it, as if he had just left it carelessly ajar.

“Insignificant and irrelevant,” pronounced Kowashi.

Streaks of light etched into the dark skies, piercing, with blasts and crackles, the palls woven of market spices and general apathy over the city. The two matriarchs swung around and against each other in a course that sliced through block after block of housing. With each barrage of bullets and bulldozed building, what the city truly had to offer to justify its existence in the Animal Realm, beyond and underneath the prefabricated tile roofs, came into view bit by bit.

Yuuma just drifted through at a leisurely pace, dodging waves of Yachie’s bullets and otter goasts throwing themselves at her — only when they had approached so closely that they could simply be sidestepped, or swept away by a swing of the spork. Yachie, on the other hand, strained herself to her limits, jolting around to hopefully outflank and outposition her opponent. But this relied on her grasp of the city as her own territory, which slipped by the minute, the eagles descending or emerging where she expected to reposition and forcing her off with volleys of their own. More and more attack waves were frustrated as otters dutifully answering her call ran themselves into eagles that had inserted where they expected to pass through. Under red disks and blue darts dousing upon her, the swiftness she still enjoyed became, to the duel commentators on the side, increasingly hollow, an afforded mercy to scurry rather than any true freedom of movement.

When Yachie backed into a corner she pointed out a finger and shouted something. The eagles couldn’t quite hear through the blasts, and figured on first impression it was unimportant, until seeing Yuuma come to a halt.

“Translation, First Compiler Takatsukasa?”

“There are the following possibilities. A spell card declaration, for one. A—”

Manhole covers around Yuuma — curiously, always placed hexagonally in Kiketsu-built cities — blasted off into orbit as another team of otters climbed out and charged at her. But as soon as they threw themselves forth they were paralyzed in place instead.

“No, it’s not particularly my style,” Yuuma halted her cloud-like movement, slided up to an otter, and raised up her spork to swing it like a bat. The otter trembled, as if trying to teeter itself back down to the hole it came out of. “But I’m here on behalf of them.”

The eagles pulled forward and cheered. “We are noticed!”

Yachie seemed to ask a follow-up question.

“Good on her for having such audience,” said First Standard-Bearer Washizu, drinking a cup of boba tea.

“Just thought I’d oblige them this time,” Yuuma’s words blared out from their speakers, just as she swung forth with all her weight and batted the otter out. In lunging forth she also pushed herself just out of the way of another volley of Yachie’s bullets. The otter bounced through the road, knocking two others into buildings before crashing into a workshop itself, finally exploding and raining the area with bits and pieces of machine tools.

“No way we can ever repay this acknowledgment… We… Swear to defend!” An eagle goast was on the verge of breaking into tears.

Yuuma then drove her spork into the rubble at her feet. “They are remarkably free-thinking individuals with quite interesting ideas—”

“T— T— T— TEN THOUSAND YEARS—” A screeching jumped out, startling and halting both of the matriarchs. Yachie flicked her head back to see a massive convocation of eagle goasts diving at her, blasting out volleys of bullets to clear their path. She could still nimbly maneuver through individual small gaps within the barrage, but not out of the way of the whole wall of eagles closing in.

“Pouncing bravely upon the enemy, with heads, standards, and ego held high, is the convocation of the 50th Bone-Breaking Band,” came the voice of a bombastic commentator, “With the honorable and excellent Mr. Takamori, First Tearer-of-Flags, at the head. Rendering service to no one but themselves, they swing their talons and beaks at the dragon-tortoise’s scales—”

Matrices of lasers and bullets were already assembling before the attack wave. The eagles ran right along the edge of Yachie’s shell pattern, yawing around disc bullets and under volleys of green rice-specks. When shots did strike them they shrugged it off and drove on undeterred.


Right as the eagles and their shots converged onto Yachie, she managed to activate her shell-field in time. Green hexagons projected out, clearing away the bullets, while a field swept out from Yachie and bound the eagles in place, just long enough for her to slip away. Once released, the eagles fought to turn themselves around and reacquire their target, only to crash into buildings, barricades of otters, and a river. She enjoyed no particular relief as in the interval Yuuma had managed to scoop away another enfilade with far less exertion…

“Ten thousand years—”

And still less comfort could be derived from the sight of the eagles accelerating into roaring flames without the slightest hint of an intent to stop.

“For causes that shall remain unknown to us. This is First Panegyrist Takasaki… from where it has been made to happen,” the commentator ended.

Standing by on rooftops, the other convocations listened anxiously for their turn. “If the program is correct, Lady Toutetsu is going to call on us next,” Washizu said to his fellow eagle goasts, all of them heads unturning. “Well, fellows of this workers’ and soldiers’ council, got any reticence to voice?” He dragged out his low voice, akin to that of an elderly teacher soliciting questions from pupils.

“Why are you even suggesting that, First Standard-Bearer?” A helmeted eagle on the furthest of rows was unamused.

“It would be prudent to reserve one’s right to, hm, opt out when one doesn’t like it,” Washizu bent his head to the side.

“Then we’d exercise it for ourselves. If we betray Lady Toutetsu, we might as well betray you too.”

“I’m honored, First Flayer-of-Men Nosuri,” Washizu chuckled.

“And, we have already made the decision for it,” that Nosuri continued, a stinging disdain coming through in his tone, “If one needs a reminder to use one’s freedom? Then perhaps one never had it in the first place.”

Through a lack of expression, those perched next to him multiplied the strength of his sentiment. Their frozen poses and Yuuma-glued gazes — in which Washizu, or each other for that matter, simply did not exist — were impervious even to the rumbles of explosions that came in step with their heartbeats.

Washizu paused for a good while, staring too at the battle continuing in the distance. Lone eagles leaped out only to be seized and pulled away by counter-ambushing otters; columns of fairies exploded as volleys sprayed through them in an instant; Yuuma finally bothered to pour another rain of red-hot bullets down upon Yachie who had just run into another corner, seemingly only to afford the latter the face of escaping.

“… Did the First Downloaders remind you to keep that in mind?” Washizu blurted out his belated reply, then took a good sip of the last of his boba tea.

Several of the other eagles let out snickers, or curled their necks back. Nosuri just crossed his wings and remained stone-faced.

“Well, I suppose I must consult them, too, seeing the occasion,” Washizu turned to another goast in a white robe, “First Compiler Takatsukasa. As we have rehearsed the ‘stratagem’ is to apply these ‘microstyluses’ against the Kiketsu matriarch’s scales,” he loosened a strange device fastened by his talons and poked at it, “Lady Toutetsu will deliver no decisive blow, or commit any sincere effort at all, until that has been accomplished. The payload is dictated by our patrons. All that we have understood well. … But of the reason for such an exception, innovation. That is your domain, I suppose, as I gathered from the memorandum? Elaborate, if you may?”

At another red flash in the distance, the eagles checked all their ‘goasts’ for the last time. They found their claws things to be ‘adjusted’ with fine turns, their wings and tails to be ‘unfolded’, and their beaks to be ‘fastened’. This realm had the treatises of First Idealist Amenohiwashi to thank for eagle spirits, but a totally distinct First Prototypist Tamawashi to credit with the goasts. The Court of Language deliberately made them homonymous, but more important was the prohibition on speaking of one’s body and actions in danmaku fights with any other names. Perhaps, by simply forgetting things like ‘casings’, ‘power supply’, or ‘hydraulics’, one could attain a mind that could do without them for the functions they were supposedly vital for, in turn supposedly a prerequisite to achieving that technologically.

“Yes, now is the time to explain it,” Takatsukasa cleared his throat and began droning, “As per the conventions the previous Military Councils have decided upon, to give purpose to such commitments only when they become certain—”

“Of course,” Washizu interrupted, then took another long pause looking at Yuuma scooping her way through a romp of otters. “I mean, what are we ‘fetching from upstream’ this time. Surely you remember when the College of Aediles enforced that term? When was that, a whole ‘balance patch’ ago?”

“Yes. Human decision-making procedure, divinatory, ‘asking a question to gods’ in its original conception.” Being interrupted didn’t bother Takatsukasa that much; onto any new topic, he was just as capable of going on. “The ‘payload’ is the question, to be inscribed onto a specified element, dragon-tortoise shell closest acceptable equivalent. Fracture from exposure temperatures, which these conditions are expected to provide, will articulate the final enjoinment.”

“Ah, of course. But… Relying on another of those tricks from above…” Washizu ruffled the back of his head, “Surely not praying another evil god into existence? Becoming too human are we, ‘programmed’ by ‘code’, if that’s still how you’re supposed to use it?”

“Its sources are deemed beastly enough,” Takatsukasa assured.

“As beastly as those practicing ‘concrete burial’ or ‘revolutionary councils’?”

“Predates them, more ‘primeval’. The Bureau of Historiography argued they were the progenitor of those two — at the root of it all. So you see—”

“Ah. How silly. Asking questions like this… That’s what humans do, yeah. Lore, that’s what it is. Seriously, what goes through the heads of you priests?” Washizu sneered.

As conventionally agreed head of the convocation Washizu could position himself above any of these avians he called his subordinates however he liked. For all the byzantine bureaucracy and convoluted convention this sophistic consultant Takatsukasa represented against him, at least that privilege was approved by them too.

The eagles straightened themselves seeing a flock of lights buzzing toward Yuuma. “Any moment now,” one said on the side. The final nudges and fixes were made for their talons. The beaks were ‘locked in’, eyes ‘recalibrated’, and plumage ‘repatterned’. The sounds of drums and cymbals from the convocations further back had never really ceased, but now picked up pace to match their heartbeats. The double reed horns let out a great shriek.

Through the roof tiles flying and swirling through the air the eagles could still see Yuuma raising her spork preparing to strike another blow.

“Frankly,” Washizu said, “I think it’s too stupid to do this–”

An eagle he couldn’t actually recall the title of cut him off. “As the Courts of Aesthetics have designated as convention.” And then another. “Our services are never required. This is entirely a favor upon us.” They chanted monotonically. “Thus as free men we have agreed on this course of action—” But thoroughly ignoring him. “You are but an instrument to my interests, Lady Toutetsu, but what a valuable jewel you do so as!” As conventionally agreed head of the convocation, Washizu had no actual control over his men. “We beseech your power and resolve to bring back that fox!” They were formally individuals that just confederated to recognize him as ‘superior’ — as they, and the Councils, liked. “I swear to defend the headquarters with—”

Takatsukasa nodded at each and every single prayer as they were recited. Each eagle goast’s feathers rearranged and recolored themselves to reflect their spirit. Everyone in the required sharpness of their mind counted fifty-eight utterances. Takatsukasa said his own. “This form I inhabit is that of the absurd creatures cooked up to populate the plane of humans. Devour it, Lady Toutetsu.”

I… totally agree! Washizu sighed. “Skin an otter and boil a tortoise to serve as offering!”

“This happy few has thus assembled,” Takatsukasa proclaimed, “Totally distinct individuals with their own visions ready to assist Lady Toutetsu out of their free will, convergent interests entirely in demonstration of her great irresistible charm—”

A massive explosion rumbled from the distance, shaking even the tiles below their feet. In four successive strokes of her spork Yuuma had knocked another formation of otters out like tennis balls, rolling them through building after building. Whole blocks were torn down flinging up waves of dust. Even spirits separated by structures left uncollapsed purely by chance ruptured. As for Washizu’s convocation, their line of sight to the matriarchs cleared entirely as the last house in the way collapsed.

The forces of nature and the tactical coordination boards could have made their signals no clearer.

“TEN THOUSAND YEARS!” The eagles cried together three times. Forming into three great blades, they launched at Yachie, crossing past one another and changing order constantly to throw off tracking bullets and intercepting otter romps. Structures shredded from explosions into ribbons flying past them. Yuuma’s own bullets, which pulled behind herself before flinging at Yachie, joined them.
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“Aspirations mighty, ambitions hefty, and attitude haughty, soaring into the skies and plunging toward their fates is Legion 17 from Washizuka, formerly the Society of Free Plasterers and Cementers, formerly the Washiba-Yasashiba Highway Maintenance and Protection Committee, formerly the Washizuka Merchants’ Mutual Aid Association — with First Standard-Bearer Washizu at the head!” First Panegyrist Takasaki chanted at the blue lights streaking through the burning sky on the screen, “Lives spooled tightly around Lady Toutetsu — through the twists and turns of their past they have never wavered in their devotion to their ideals. We of the Gouyoku Alliance have all decided our own destinies, but it is that which we need to elaborate the least on. All that you can do is to sing their praises as they smash this shell—”

As lights closed in on Yachie, the equally excited voice of First Video Jockey Takatsuki took over. “Kicchou locks the first wave down and sweeps off the first curtain, but a second curtain follows in! —Her charge is depleted, and the Legionaries valiantly press on, course-corrected! —Lady Toutetsu simply sidesteps the shell-beams again! Another blast!”

Another convocation took off. The broadcast cut to the shots focusing on the eagles in this next attack wave right as the first resumed their swoop toward Yachie; if the latter failed, as the previous waves had did, there would be no reason to focus on that instead of the fresh potentialities actually waiting to happen. Takasaki cut back in to introduce them. “The Obsidian-Clubbers of First World-Wilter Takasuke follow… An honorable unit, against even the most overwhelming odds in favor of enemies of the Alliance, they pulled out fate’s own intestines and made artistic knots of it, many times! Ceramic was shattered between their beaks and claws, patterns smashed through by their clubs, and the wicked sculptor god herself reduced to a nude model for her own craft! Theirs is a will impossible to resist, which overwhelms, overpowers, violates, tears into, and devours! And leaves behind utter disdain…”

“—Legionary and First Tiebreaker Takaba strikes Kicchou off-balance! —Lady Toutetsu’s bullets follow through, and— Score!”

The broadcast cut back to a fireball blooming in the sky. With a smoke trail and spinning around through the air, Yachie crashed to the ground.

“—TEN THOUSAND YEARS! This is First Video Jockey Takatsuki live at Usonokawa, where it has been made to happen. Finally!” Glass breaking rang through the microphone for a good ten seconds and Takatsuki’s celebratory squalls were transmitted to the, according to the data panel, hundreds of millions of spirits watching. Takasaki chuckled as his co-host cut out and disconnected.

The eagle goasts turned and swung in to catch Yachie mid-flight together, gently carrying her to the ground. The otters on the ground had scurried off to watch from behind the rubble. Yuuma slowly landed, poking her spork down.

About fifty feet from the ground Yachie was dive-bombed — her scream was drowned out with the score’s horns so as to not make the scene any more comical than necessary — onto a large formation of eagle-goasts that had landed and assembled to catch her with their wings. She slided and surfed over them. As they passed her on, each eagle cheered that they had ‘swung her tail’ or been ‘anointed with the substance’ to the camera.

“Each eagle spirit finds his urges fulfilled,” Takasaki commented, “As one is sated, all are.” The words were only superficially superficial, truer than they were stylistically hollow: for Takasaki, at least, Gouyoku Central Television had earned much prestige from its coverage, and advanced, presented its — his — vision to revolutionize how to involve all society in these fights. “We may thank only Lady Toutetsu, great singularity, all-devouring maw, savorer of the world’s flavors, which alone confers graciously on those she spares the luxury of ego—”

The eagles carried Yachie before Yuuma, plopped her down, then withdrew to the sides of the shot. Still breathing heavily, she had yet to make sense of everything that happened. “… How did you… beat me on my own territory?!” She demanded, snarling, like the fight was still on. The shot zoomed in close enough for her bulging veins to be seen.

“Well, I certainly have the lesson for that,” Takasaki said to himself. Indeed, as if to offer him the stage, Yuuma said nothing, just blankly smiling back at Yachie.

Takasaki cleared his throat and fixed his gown. He leaned toward the microphone, another witty and flowery reply prepared and armed, only to halt as ‘CHANNEL IN USE’ flashed out on the control panel. “Huh, that wasn’t part of it… our time on this was supposed to exclusive…”

A voice, sonorous very much like his own, blared through. “Thus the Kiketsu matriarch learns that the Gouyoku Alliance operates on strategy, prudence, and vision, rather than trickery which thinks itself clever, a base kind of conduct which has been, again, verily refuted again in this exchange…”

The glib words halted Takasaki’s casual wave of his wing, which, as if having struck into and bounced from something, began shaking in place.

“…The natural hierarchy in the Animal Realm enforces itself. … This is First Exegete Takahagi, live at where it happens.”

Takasaki’s eyes widened. His head jerked and spun furiously, scanning the empty studio, as if the speaker was right around him to be rightfully torn apart. “… all that time on air, and you chose this most tasteless messaging!” His wing swept through, and scattered the documents on the desk onto the floor. He pounced on that which remained neatly stacked, tearing at thick volumes with his beak and talons. “… of course. Perhaps it is my mistake to think a compromise could have been possible with you people…”

‘Stylistically’, Takasaki was always a vocal opponent of any suggestion that anyone deserved and could expect to keep their place in the Animal Realm; it was not only patently false with everything they did but implied a world of mediocrity where no effort mattered and the vain drives of the eagle became self-defeating. But that ideologizing was not even among the foremost of offenses. That thrice-cursed cryptocanid Takahagi’s lack of tone had to be a challenge against himself, a mockery directed against his own style of commentary: like everything else in this profession, and for eagles already of strong drives, expressionlessness itself had to be a heavily intentional affectation.

With just commentary over the deeds of the most excellent eagle spirits in action, Takasaki made them legible to the audience, disclosing but also defining the otherwise inestimable forces that made a goast throw itself at a matriarch — telling their stories for them. Through the power of this medium and Gouyoku Central Television he could then guide how gullible viewers imitated that drive, and exhort them to act to the virtues he defined. Just by talking over them. As a treat, their accomplishments at the end of the day were their own; this power only needed to attain what it demanded itself.

In that world of humans he imagined for his thesis, the regimes that did this over military parades were hardly admirable, but in the Animal Realm one always sought to subjugate others first and foremost; ‘the humanities’ were but an intellectual arms industry. Takasaki inherited the design details from his mentors, but the world behind the vision was his own. With great care and meticulousness he brought it to life in this very specific manner, with those voluble and excessively theatric broadcasts, now a whole aspect of contemporary eagle life entirely of his design. And today the Nocturnal Council and other patrons of this Takahagi had gone out of their way to interfere with it in this equally specific way. At the end of the day, it was not merely taste or propriety at stake, but a very personal matter.

Takasaki looked at the tattered papers on the floor. Illustrations in the write-up by First Nomophylax Washida on ‘societies which practice divination’ progressed from arcanely arranged stick-figures into box-arrow diagrams. Much of the final section was defaced by the obnoxiously thick brushstrokes of First Protonotary Washimoto’s calligraphy, which read: “Agreeable — teach them their station — great Tentative God”.

He let out a deep sigh, and then a furious huff. “Of course, look at the only possible message you can tell with throwing thousands of us at a piece of tortoise shell! What a tasteless way of putting yourselves above. But it’s time to end that little world you’ve been channeling yourselves.”

In that moment he decided to make it an urgent matter. Plain speech was made for calls with the major offices and palaces in Washinomiya… but only in preparation for grander commentary to a grander event.

Many years ago, when Takasaki began his first foray into ‘humanism’ still wearing a tunic suit, he entertained all kinds of thoughts that tried too hard to see past it all, in an ironic and cynical manner. As taught by his mentor, the Animal Realm supposedly just hatched the idea of the ‘human’ one day, something just viscerally disturbing, an ideal that wasn’t anyone’s in particular yet made the most unreasonable of demands on every single one of them. From the beginning of philosophy and civilization, they threw everything into apprehensively approaching and conceiving, evolving this creature — for the sake that they could not become it.

The ‘humanists’ searched for the ways the ‘human’ as imagined could, in his inscrutably many ways of being, somehow live in a way that lapsed in the essential ‘human’ characteristic which the beasts despised; once those ways were identified the beasts zealously reformed themselves to attain it. The beasts owed all they have thought and accomplished to ‘humanism’. They imagined the humans’ forms and acts, picturing — imprisoning — them in ever-more dismal states of existence, and drew from the results new lives to live themselves, convinced this would immunize them against the absurdities of those visions. A game of mutual enthrallment.

‘Grammatical’ gender in proper language actually marked status, that is to say someone as distinct and powerful as the matriarchs would always be referred to in the feminine and the faceless great masses serving them always in the masculine, because the humans supposedly made its ‘natural’ counterpart a source of hierarchy. The beast spirit organizations rebranded from ‘organized crime syndicates’ to ‘centralized bureaucratic states’ to ‘voluntary confederations of individuals’ to access increasing capabilities to commit the ‘inhumane’. The relationship was even reflexive and recursive: both the old belief that humans were muses contacted through meditative trances, and the new methodology that they were a phenomenological object around which society and history unfolded, had been received from the whispers of those strange beings themselves, who in turn were just inserted one day into cavern monasteries or philosophical institutes by those with interest in nothing else.

Though at least in the Gouyoku Alliance, it just became a way for prideful eagle spirits to impose themselves on this inane world. Delightful was the feeling of being above others, seeing them enacting what oneself had devised and knew every great detail of. Before one could triumph over his peers, he had to enslave the many primates dwelling his head, arranging them into something new and which could be referred to in its — or his — own terms. Only then could one be initiated — even receiving the title of First-something — into proper Alliance life. Then began the real struggle of making that world a reality, just to spite the others who had equally vivid ones of their own, and imprison them inside one’s own, alongside all those humans manipulated at pleasure… The entire social system of enthusiastic ‘students of the humanities’ implementing their ‘theses’ in competition with each other — every spirit inventing and claiming a new part to life to be imposed on all — was obviously derived from the human world in form, but in essence it merely manifested this dynamic.

Now harboring these thoughts just became entirely superfluous with all that he had since went through. There was one part of his mentor’s explanations that would remain relevant, however; in fact his whole vision and plan hinged on it. The professor was very insistent that ‘man’ really did just ‘come into existence one day’. The human did everything with elaborate, explicit reason, but the beast created him simply on a whim; any arguments to the contrary were themselves humanisms. To accomplish his ambitions, he had to trust in the ability for the animal to spring into action without cause.

Washinomiya’s great pyramid had been dwarfed since thirty years ago by the Tower to the Subjectivist Idea, and after that 81 distinct skyscrapers that were the pet projects of great humanists all First-something, but Takasaki decided just it would do today for the next segment of his show. The foremost reason was that each step was covered by a massive screen, which livestreamed the scenes in Usonokawa. Now even they were irrelevant.

As he summited the pyramid, they cut to the crowds of eagles watching below, who gave doubtful squints at first. “First Panegyrist? Why’s he up there?”

Takasaki just looked into the sky, defying the weight of his feathered headdress issued by the Ministry of Rites. First Liturge Hirowashi whispered that the bronzeworkers had the transmitters under control and they were ready to air any time. “Thanks a lot,” Takasaki replied absent-mindedly, giving Hirowashi all that was deserved purely as an accessory to his own plans; surely he was being reciprocated. First Town-Eater Takashiro and First Rainmaker Mitsumi followed him because they were wise enough to choose to serve his plans. First Censor Arawashi reported very usefully all the feuds, resentments, and unsettled debts that would prime the crowd below to assault major notables if simply ordered to do so. By cold metrics he was also Takasaki’s only admitted peer in intellect and sensibilities, but for now even his grand ideas about using face coverings and masks to liberate raptorkind from regulations of their specific ‘species’ had to take a back seat.

Bird heads locked into confusion-conveying tilts. “Hey First Panegyrist, what’s the next group of guys you’re going to introduce?”

The shot zoomed in on the closest convocation. The censer before Takasaki calmed his thoughts and masked his face with its fumes. With a long screeching call he began — resumed — his narration. “Fourth Molar, First Drinker-of-Marrow Takafumi at the head, spirits of voracious appetites and great will that make them worthy companions of Lady Toutetsu. They will, right here in this decided moment, march on the opposite pyramid for the sole purpose of flexing their strength and picking a fight!”

“… Me? Us?” That Takafumi pointed at himself. The spirits of that convocation looked at each other. They glanced back at pyramid to their own stupefied looks on the screens. But they wouldn’t be here to not figure things out. “… Hey, First Panegyrist IS talking about us,” another shouted, “You know what that means. We’re the ones with haniwa-smashing accolades, marrow-drinking will, and eternal loyalty to Lady Toutetsu now.” “We’re being enlisted for something! Big Humanist is finally recognizing us!”

The eagles stood at attention, as if charmed by Takasaki’s words, but that itself was the great curiosity for they were not intended to do that. So far, he only suggested a course of action. They understood his intent… as if conceived by it… all too perfectly.

“Well. About time,” Takafumi called up to the pyramid summit, “We dare not question why your attention is suddenly bestowed on us today. We can only answer with our flesh which become machines: this formation is ready and standing by — lives ready to give. First Panegyrist, mind repeating the directive?”

Takasaki nodded and took a big gulp from a cup of sake on the altar. “The priests thought they could keep them at bay with barricades on Tsumiyama-odori and embankments of the Alimentary Canal. They see these odds and charge in head-on anyway. What awaits is a taste of the priests’ flesh!”

The raptors’ eyes, sprung by bloodlust, almost popped out. “Gotcha! An entirely friendly challenge it is. Thanks, First Panegyrist!” They poured past the plaza’s perimeter to parade themselves through the clearing in front, fix and calibrate their goasts, and march off toward the other pyramid faintly visible on the horizon. “Ten thousand years!” Their cheers roared over even Takasaki’s own amplified voice.

The rest of the crowd was now stirring as well. They brandished their talons awaiting to ‘attach’ them. Their numbers grew; passers-by and nearby residents found this program more interesting, evidently. Double reed horns and drums began oppressing ears with a rhythm akin to that of heavy machinery. Takasaki’s and the cameras’ view moved over to a crowd of younger eagles in black, closed-collar school uniforms. “199th Gurentai, with the just-graduated First Transcendental Syntactician Takagawa at the head!” He announced, “They want the freedoms to want what one hungers for, to be feared by those that deserve to, from worship of unworthy idols, and from having to listen to interminable speech. And a fifth demand has to be that of a privilege — attendance of Lady Toutetsu for future battles; not one less. These they shall… present very politely but seriously to the Fate-Deciding Council and other culture-engineering relevant organs in their compounds along Ōtori-odori.”

With every syllable Takasaki pronounced the students visibly made themselves upright, fixed their clothes, and put their eyes up in attention. “Y’know I’m not a fan of humanists in general but… This has a feel to it.” “Who doesn’t want to riot?” “For four freedoms and one privilege!” They were invigorated. They hopped and flew over the others gathered and each other to get on the road, fastening headbands before adjusting their wings. “Ten thousand years to this fellow, he’s one of us, the good one among them!”

“A show of ourselves, right here! How often do you get that?” A sparrowhawk laughed with his mates, “Wonder what’s the agenda—”

“First Procurator Hanatsumi and his band of 17th Disembodied Hands!” Takasaki called out, “Just as they snatch away the undergarments of ogresses in excess of 495 years of age, today too they shall spirit away First Nomophylax Washida and his claque. Remove from their shady mithraeum, and carry them to this altar, so they can… really present and defend their schemes under the light and before the public. Mr. Hanatsumi is but a humble stoker of thought, moderator of debate, one who brings the color of what he obtains to light!”

“… Gladly,” Hanatsumi jerked his head upward. He was entirely unprepared for what had just been ascribed to him; usually he would not have found much honor in it. “Decreed so, there is no reason to resist… We have been waiting for this. Four-hundred ninety-five — thousand years to your excellency!”

On the side, a mass of older eagles looked unamused, and produced decoration badges — talons clutching branch-shaped wings with bloodied jewels hanging off them — to pin to their clothes, raising their chests at the pyramid. Takasaki couldn’t care if he had fabricated Hanatsumi’s exploits (or name) on the spot or if those below did so with theirs, real old fighters would be rightfully jealous of each other, while those who just got into the act could settle into their character quickly.

“The venerable hosts of First Copy-and-Patcher Takahashi. When the vampire descended, they bravely met the aggressor. At the order of the matriarch, millions flocked forth, and the spear of fate was caught dead in its flight. The friction flaked off enough horn from beaks and claws to build a temple to their exploits. Who dares to flout them? Certainly, the priests of Hojuji and their ridiculous rites of war will be taking their demands tonight very seriously!”

Takahashi’s convocation didn’t say a thing. They just swung forward, trampling others, and formed the most square column the plaza had seen yet. They gave a rigid salute with their wings as they marched off.

On the other flank of the plaza Takasaki saw another crowd of curious appearance. Spirits of avian forms but with wider and flatter faces than most eagle goasts. He never saw them before, and got somewhat apprehensive.

“Owl goasts,” First Censor Arawashi whispered, “Decreed by the Taxonomists some years ago to… Well, they called it ‘nocturnal duty’, but it’s obviously figurative. … If you ask me, the First Namegiver made a whole class hibernate through a metaphorical day to be when the eagles lived just because they could. Still there’s a very convoluted history—”

“I understand,” Takasaki raised his wing, “Not much time for that. They have a more encouraging one ahead of them.” He cleared his throat again and turned his mic back on. “16th Night Regiment and First Chronologist Shifukurou; Night-Copyists with First Hammer-wielder Mazuku, in case you think we’ve forgot these assuredly old and familiar friends,” Takasaki said as the owl goasts appeared on the screen, preening their faces and shaking themselves awake. Squalls of confusion and curiosity from the eagles below cut off as he continued. “No, they’ve merely waited to strike at this moment. Indeed, only when darkness befalls this world do they throw themselves forth. The Bekira river swells, and Mount Fuzan clouds, as the poem goes!”

“Huh, that might be it. We were just told sleep during the day one day then forgot about…” Shifukurou nodded, “Ah, I couldn’t hold a grudge for doing nothing for decades—”

“… First Protonotary Washimoto thought he could hide himself, banning lamps and windows from the arcological mega-nest he tyrannizes. But depriving his fellow eagles of the sight that would have revealed his deformities physical and spiritual, he blinded himself too. He’s not going to see them coming… what they have in store, it must be for them to reveal.”

“… Nor do I suppose I can, at this point, resist the offer of a good hunt out of nowhere. Just like before.” Thousands on the square had heard them hoot for the first time ever, but now they joined in the screeching calls of the other ‘diurnal’ spirits.

Column after column formed on the spot and dashed off, as they were simply called on by Takasaki and given a purpose — in more ways than one. “Sole Appetite of Lady Toutetsu, led by First… Food-Taster, sure, Mr. Tsumibito— Rail-stations.” The words were the only showy thing, and even then the First Party Organ responsible for that style was getting a visit from the 4th Oil-Born. “55th Pancreas-Pulverizers, they’ll taxidermize the Taxonomists…” Naturally Takasaki was not to overestimate his talent: the kinds of friendship that could survive life in this place had to be that of cohesive fighting units, while they — obviously spirited in their own right — always had their own reasons to strike against those named. “Unit 79 Trillion, Party Central Committee complex, make a phone call to the institute of antiquities so First Epigrapher Yoshitaka joins them.” All things the ‘humanities’ were prone to neglecting as they forgot the key differences of the Animal Realm and all its imagined parallels. “Combat Groups of the Servile Class… network service providers…” But it was still his display that they had entertained, his requests they answered, his world they enacted. “Gap-Closers and Backdoor-Shutters, central ledgers…”

Flashes on the horizon shone through the city’s yellow hazy sky. Now Takasaki had all the air time he wanted.
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“Eat up, scaly!” Yuuma shouted, slamming another emptied bowl onto the table, “We’re not even onto the second round yet!” She bit a chunk off a roast hind leg, and with another smooth movement, right as she swallowed the meat, thrusted an ornate tool through the bone to drench a bowl of noodles with marrow of otherworldly fragrance. It glimmered under the camera. Hot oil pouring onto green onions finished the plate’s toppings.

“What a godly stomach!” “It’s unreal!” “Lady Toutetsu is so cool!” The fledglings shouted at the screen. Every bowl Yuuma finished was met with chirps and caws slowly becoming full screeching calls. Mushroom stew, crispy eel, sixteen varieties of tofu, nineteen varieties of noodles, braised intestine sauce, fermented cabbage, shrimp paste, ginger duck, vinegar-gravy fish, potstickers, ‘phoenix claws’, hot pot aorta, snow skin mooncakes, red bean paste… All their fine preparation allowed them to last mere seconds in Yuuma’s jaws.

Yachie, too, furiously devoured rack after rack of dim sum, but only by rapidly and mechanically ripping the dumplings off the leaf sheets they came on. “Look at that turtle. Her face is red and just full. She’s going to give in any time now!” “Hey, she tried her best.” “Well, that doesn’t help you much in life!” “How much can they eat?” For most of them this was the first time they were seeing the Kiketsu matriarch in any shape or form at all, and she came off as a mythical beast indeed. As she defied bet after bet over which plate she would collapse on, they came to hold a begrudging respect of her as this assuredly episodic antagonist of Yuuma’s adventures today.

Non-negotiable for both matriarchs was the savorings of soup or tea, for which they abruptly made their movements gentle. Cups were moved so slowly in contrast to the jerking of sporks and chopsticks as if time itself was grinding to a halt. Even more so when Takahata’s editors slowed down the focused shots on the vessels in the ten frantic minutes they had before it went straight to television. With bared fangs, bloodshot eyes, and vein-laden arms the two could still gracefully pass fine porcelain ware up to their lips. Then the vessels made but a mere graze, as if there was never any intent to just take a sip, and were returned to their holders just as slowly. Mysterious imagery that ought to be contemplated in its own terms had simply commanded its own arrangement as such.

“Elegant!” The fledglings cupped their faces, “How could such majesty even exist? But it does!”

“I want to cook for Lady Toutetsu,” declared one of them, “It must be an impossible task. An endless one, you’ll, like, die doing it. But to leave the smallest mark of yourself on displays like this… Is it not worthy of striving?”

“I want to make the wares,” another said, “To somehow fit all that in anything will be more impressive!”

“Catch the fish!” “Someone has to grow the tea!” “I’ll cure the meat!” “You watched A Bite of Gouyoku? Those spice-chopping sequences, all the juices… building all those furnaces… all just for Lady Toutetsu…” “How could such drudgery be justified any other way?”

“Meanwhile, we here have ‘humanities’,” Washitani grumbled, slouching down on his desk. “‘If Lady Toutetsu’s table manners teaches social etiquette, the cuisine documentary is the demonstration of her binding power over and behind all the great endeavors in the universe. The cooking traditions and emotional labor of billions of beast spirits can exist only to serve her, she is like a hidden god that moves everything behind the scenes. Beasts are uplifted from bare life, from preoccupation with base concerns of subsistence, by devotion to her. Feeding is elevated into cuisine only when one takes care to think about her palate and not his own. Civilization’s sole purpose is decking out her table and refilling her bowl; the merits of all peoples are judged by what dishes they can offer’. So they would say…”

“I have to say this again, I just love your thesis,” said the hawk next to him, “You really have the kind of imagination for cosmic crushing weights the field wants.”

“Leave that for the examinations to decide,” Washitani was mirthless.

Brimstone-rain season closed with celebrations that always went out of control, like the one happening on the screen, or the end of their semester at this institute. Just as the winds howled in all directions on days like this one could never be certain just what were they always so worried about. Officially Washitani had another two years until ‘graduation’, but in all attested records the School Boards always renamed and redesigned everything just before. He thought of the honey-dippable buckwheat pancakes which once appeared on the cuisine documentaries, and the elaborate artisan work that went into fashioning the stone slates they were made on. It was dubious if all that was still ‘cuisine’ when he could get back home for the break.

He glanced back at the screen. A portrait of Yuuma smiling hung above next to banners in square letters he already forgot how to read. Identifying Yuuma’s likeness across a variety of artistic styles, expressions, and situations was the only real skill acquired these years; she was the only thing to stick around for them, an anchor for their minds.

As the double reed horns in the background played louder than ever Yuuma’s jaw unhinged to accommodate an entire leg of dry-cured ham. Her multiple rows of teeth machined the meat into paper-thin slices in seconds. Her tongue, each bit of which was disturbingly individually tactile, arranged a delicate pattern of the slices and extended itself out to present to the camera. The fat and salt crystals glimmered in the shot. Then with a swing of her head all that was swept back in, flushed down her throat with a big gulp.

“Maybe she just ate everything, even their presences elsewhere?” Washitani said to himself, “But I remember… another creature of the humans did that too. Maybe she ate them up too? But where does that even start…”

“Washitani, I despair thinking I’ll never match your intellect!” The deskmate said admiringly.

“Leave that to the exams to—”

“Attention, attention,” a voice blared out from the classroom speakers, “Candidate 559 — your audience is requested for your initiation-examination.”

“… Called it.”

Eight eagle spirits in finely embroidered costumes sat around Washitani in the examination room. Each had his head poking out of the costume’s eagle head’s beak. “The most precocious of novitiates here, sir,” the one with blue feathers pointed to Washitani.

“First Lot-Drawer of the Golden Urn Washikari, I am still doubtful we have to replace the First Osteomancer like this.”

“I’m not, Mr. Washida, First Nomophylax Emeritus. We lost your portfolio, but his is still salvageable, even if he’s unlikely to ever come out of that museum intact. First Breather-of-Smoke, First Clam-Smasher, First Town-Eater, and First Pixel-Artist still answer to him — Perform a traversal and you have fifty thousand spirits we can still call on.”

“And you think, with such power in their hands, they would accept this?” A bandage-clad eagle glanced at Washitani.

“Of those who haven’t turned against us yet, what’s motivating them at all aside from aesthetic preference?” Washikari said, and turned to the fledgling. “It’s simple. He grasps the idea well, performs it, and the First Osteomancer is for all intents and purposes reincarnated, like they want.”

“Just deploying a project like this is…”

“It is up to my own power, I suppose,” Washikari inhaled, “But we already announced to them we have the reincarnation on hand.”

Wing flaps came through the hall and the eagle spirits straightened themselves in attention. A stout eagle spirit with feathers all ruffled emerged through the door, accompanied by more, equally mangled.

Washikari walked forth to greet. “First Right Undersecre—”

“Just Takanori, please,” the figure said, “We can save the praises for later. I’ve got the materials.”

“… Really?”

“Authentic dragon-tortoise scales shed right off Kicchou Yachie’s back, picked fresh from the streets of Usonokawa,” Takanori imitated the soothing tone of the cuisine documentary narrators. An attendant presented a burlap sack, from which Takanori pulled out a shard of carapace, and dropped it onto a plate that Washikari slided forth just in time. “Fought off so many otters for this. And then we had to run all the way back here!” He boasted, “Out of the cauldron and into the fire, we’ll be crushing this putsch next.”

“You have our gratitude,” said Washikari.

“I expect a promotion if we get through this,” Takanori dusted his costume and walked out.

“Certainly. How about… First Twelfth Nomophylax? It’s a seat on the Nocturnal Council!”

“Too long!” The laugh echoed through the hallway.

For whom? Washitani remained quiet, busy adjusting a beak-tip drill he was told to put on, but in his head ‘humanity’ was clamoring for answers. Where is Lady Toutetsu in all of this? Did she need someone to procure shells for her, or a ‘nomophylax’? The ‘adults’ in the room weren’t offensively haughty, but to the contrary, they evinced nervousness at something vague. What besides Lady Toutetsu’s jaws and stomach, where the universe begins and ends, should one even be worried about?

“Anyway, First Epigrapher Yoshitaka’s original plan was, uh, evidently misinterpreted. Too busy with his work to review something that was going through the councils! But we shall redress that unfortunate circumstance with this revised version from his notes, now that we already redressed his betrayal of us,” Washikari placed a document before Washitani. “It seems it was not supposed to be done in the heat of battle! Convenient. And cleans up after the First Osteomancer himself — I had my disagreements with the scale of all this from the start, mind you. —It also turns out Kicchou wears no ‘plastron’, which leaves us with the carapace. Yoshitaka insisted on the former, but this mistake we shall correct for him.”

Now it seemed it was for good that no mention of Lady Toutetsu ever even approached the beaks of spirits like this.

“—The rites are restored! Now, young master, please forgive the commotion,” Washikari turned back to Washitani, and offered the shell. “Make the notches, proclaim and inscribe the charge, and it shall be processed.”

This was an examination impossible to study for — and impossible to fail. The answers had been given to him many times over. He drilled the holes in order, easy enough that he now raised his head to glance back at the council-eagles with some disdain. Thanks to their forms, they could not even affect phony expressions on their faces. What they answered to had also been made obvious.

“Peace is made with the discontents,” Washitani addressed the shell, and, fitting on a stylus, etched the statement in. “Peace is not made with the discontents,” he addressed and wrote again. Perhaps Lady Toutetsu was powerful enough to be asked in this incredibly vague fashion. If so, he was confident in this room he would be the only eagle spirit that could enjoy spiritual audience with her.

But again, for whom? Guards charging up their implements surrounded the shell as he was pulled away, and struck it with several barrages of bullets. Washitani covered his eyes at the flashes. The revised procedure thought it had got that part right. The shell naturally shattered and then pulverized. There was no chance of putting it back together; the shards were the size of corn kernels.

Washitani read the instructions again. “Up to the diviner” was calligraphed in a big font and then there were twenty lines of a barely readable note on how from hereon it was “purely the diviner’s purview”. Onto an even higher indent level another note explained how the humanists had “apparently not figured it out”, citing the previous First Osteomancer’s own words: “How to design a system a whole people can count on for centuries? I could not be so imaginative…”

“The prognostication, young master, please,” Washikari cued.

Washitani stiffened himself; so, for Yuuma’s sake, he had to find no equals among this council, or raptorkind in general. Their game was to be indulged but only to spite and eventually defeat them. “When the eagle spirit landed, gave up its privilege of flight, to serve Lady Toutetsu, it took on ‘world-building’ so it could still ‘see from above’.” Another ridiculous thesis, but it could be turned in, at least; he could spare no greater effort to answer those in the room. The shapes of the little shards didn’t matter anymore, that complete world, though not entirely of his own, was out to impose itself.

“Favorable to peace,” he uttered. In his blank tone there was only an expectation that the words by themselves could make the others submit on the spot, by some kind of magical power, and he’d be done with it. Surely he was being reciprocated in that sentiment.

“That is, to stand down!” One of the elder eagles blurted out, and winked at Washitani.

“Good to see someone else in favor of common sense,” another joined in.

The rump council looked at each other. “There goes your lifeline, First Lot-Drawer,” First Nomophylax Emeritus Washida jeered, resting his wings on his walking stick. Washikari looked around anxiously, and sighed. After some hesitation, they all turned to Washitani to nod.

“Well, for the record, I was not a bitter-ender in the first place,” said Washikari, shrugging, “Just a pragmatic maneuverer. … It’ll be done.”

“But congratulations, First Osteomancer Washitani,” they said together.

“To pass one thing off as another, the other as the first, and to mix them together anyway — just another side of the world of mappō,” said the First Treasure-Revealer wearing an orange robe over his eagle costume, “And the world of mapo tofu. Fuck a nine-tailed fox, I’m hungry now. New guy, I mean First Osteomancer Washitani, want to come eat at Taishan with us?”

“So that’s everything about the Order of the Half-Closed Talon,” Yuuma said, squinting at a long scroll that was so thin as to be disintegrating between her nails, “‘I hope you enjoyed that lore document as much as I did writing it’. Yes. That should be it. You should now be in a position to make a sound judgment of this. My character will be on default routine for the record.”

“I’ll take the chance,” Yachie leaned back on the creaking bamboo stool, “Erm. Patchinwai draws—”

“’Kay then, let’s see!” Yuuma interrupted, swiping from her pocket six finely engraved bronze corn kernels. With another fierce stroke of her hand she slammed down on a button, then tossed the kernels out onto the table, right as a web of lasers lit up on it. Besides which specific lines were cut by which kernel, the trajectory of each in its flight was further tracked and more parameters derived from the geometry. With a tinkle the kernels had landed right as Yachie had picked up on the tension.

A whole team of eagle and otter spirits brought along thick divination books and cumbersome mainframes to process the results. The room filled with button-punching and calculator-cranking for a few seconds. Then a slip of paper passed before a panel of bespectacled beasts in tunic suits. It was finally politely and quietly delivered to Yuuma’s hands by an eagle goast.

“Fishball skewers. The stats on that aren’t bad. Your chances are good,” Yuuma smiled.

“Diu, I was gunning for the bottomless-clip Beretta…” said Yachie, frustrated.

“No, I’m serious. Your character has basically maxed out the gnawing-scratching complex. If you’re really worried about firepower, the drone you called in ten turns ago still has a chance of hitting, modified to compensate for your weapon’s effectiveness. … I’ll leave that to the simulations. And on that, now for the next roll,” Yuuma cast the kernels again, as a camera pushed its lens even more tightly onto the table.

“Yup, my character’s dead again,” Chiyari groaned.

Biten furiously dug through her pile of tiles, cards, tokens, and pendants, ultimately producing an odd combination of nine. “Yeah, yours is too,” Chiyari said after just giving a single glance at the row. The bone-crafted mahjong tile she held with her toes flew out and hit Biten on the head.

“Thanks again for coming all the way. I’m sure glad we halted the fight for… whatever reason, First Food-Taster Tsumibito,” Takahata whispered to the sparrowhawk next to him, “And that Kowashi’s not here, also for whatever reason, thank Lady Toutetsu. Sure glad one building survived all that.”

“They ‘recalled’ the project,” Tsumibito explained, slurping on a bowl of noodles. He wore a pink shirt and red suspender pants with paper charms taped all over, heavily torn to reveal fresh bruises.


“Turns out— that’s not how you do osteomancy. First, you’re supposed use the plastron, Kicchou doesn’t even have that. At least according to First Epigrapher—”

“Sorry, you’re losing me there,” Takahata squinted.

“The first great error was doing someone’s project dirty like that,” Tsumibito shrugged, “That’s still a face-saving excuse, a great humanist could hardly go a day without him and his world being slighted. It was everything else they were moving around for it, the sheer scale of it.” He turned and glanced at an otter spirit sitting a step higher behind them. “… Yes, it fell short of its expectations, the reviews came in negative and… support was withdrawn, totally voluntarily. Since everyone has indispensable roles in big acts like this…”

“How many are getting plucked over it?” Takahata gasped, “Even the ritual warfare guys?”

“… Yes,” Tsumibito answered hesitantly.

“I say that’s why you people never get anything done,” said the otter, who in particular sported a long white beard that he never kept his paws off, “Every thing you take for granted is someone’s pet project in ‘humanities’… One guy opts out and everything collapses. If we didn’t teach you how to form committees—”

“Yes, totally, best to ensure everyone acts sufficiently different down here,” Tsumibito looked up, “Anyway, by now we’ve fallen back to this session here. It’s the backup program. The First Dungeonmaster hasn’t been purged yet — I mean. Yes. He remains agreeable for the time being and this has few, yes, dependencies, so this gets to go on.”

“Hohohohoho—” Yuuma bleated, slipping a tattered page of calculations over the table, “Look at these results! I can’t even pronounce the numbers at this point.”

“Well I said my character was dead,” said Chiyari as she took out another long page to squint at, “Alright, I’m just going to… roll for possession on the guard with the gun-halberd.” Biten swiped another nine tokens over the table. “Oh cool yours didn’t die,” Chiyari crossed her arms, “Thanks for the buffs.”

She tossed the kernels over the lasers and a screen displayed the results. “Ah, I still failed? At least Biten’s getting karma for it, don’t think that character’s getting judged by the monks any time soon. —Okay I’m just going to reincarnate into a Hard-to-Destroy Reptile to appear in sixty turns then.” An eagle wearing sunglasses leaned in to whisper to her and she grimaced. “—I have to go through bardo for that? I must have missed that chunk of the rules… Well, I got a character sheet for that at least.”

“—In fact I’m quite sure the whole bardo mechanic wasn’t there when I played it on the commute here. Something happened for sure,” Tsumibito glanced at the other eagles wearing sunglasses in the corner, huddled around a telephone. Just before they looked back he raised his bowl to finish his soup. “—Ah.”

“So, they, er, were overly ambitious,” said Takahata.

“That’s the funny part. You’d never expect the Nocturnal Council to just take Lady Toutetsu to a fight from how they’ve been doing things for the past few… balance patches, that’s the unit of time now? But yes I was in disbelief too when I woke up in Washinomiya earlier today, like come on.”

“Like never doing anything with the goat and only foisting projects on eagles,” the otter blurted.

“—I mean. They were either biding their time for something like this,” Tsumibito said, “Or desperate to just do anything different after so long. Either way it hasn’t, erm, turned out well for them.”

“Well, I owe this job to that, at least. They wanted some way to put it on a screen. I just turned in my thesis, so…” Only a few hours ago Takahata would not have thought to share anything about his thus far unremarkable career, but now he was eager to follow the style of his new superior.

“Good on you. You’re probably keeping it,” Tsumibito said casually, “Not deterministically, mind you. Many with short-enough titles have told me they liked all of it.”

Takahata stiffened, turned, and gave a bow. “… My boundless gratitude, First Food-Taster! I’ll be relying on your help.”

“—What’s the— Thrice-cursed shit-born god, you hatchlings act like this now?” Tsumibito laughed, “Well, you’ll know surviving the scene better than I do. World’s really a cage for test subjects of suspicious elixirs from up above deployed to break haniwa with desperate seven-lives dedication. —Hypnotize a fox, Takasaki’s getting into my head.”

There was another round of card-drawing and token-placing on the table, too much movement for each camera angle to capture fully. Tiles rustled as they shuffled. “I’ll take the fight again,” said Yachie, “With the skewers, since they’ve been so convenient.”

“Interestingly, do you happen to know that before the shit-born god no one ever even saw a ‘human spirit’?” The old otter chuckled, “But after that the great organizations somehow unanimously introduced strict regulations on cybernetic body modification, personal cultural identity, historical revisionism, and of course ‘humanism’ itself. How strange!”

“… Well I was, there back then, of course,” Tsumibito said, “… You’ve seen one?”

“Make an offering, chant the incantations and meditate, they’ll appear. You then enslave them through mental concentration and they supply artistic inspiration,” said the otter, stroking his beard, “At least that’s when I was abbot and treasure-revealer. … I have no idea of it anymore either. … I miss when it was just being ‘gangs’.”

“Ah, you say that now, old man,” Tsumibito shrugged, “But you would be just as lost back then…”

“If those creatures in those trances and dreams were real… through the eons of their history we now still struggle to put down… it’s certainly in the many ways they could be absolutely animal.” The otter sighed.

“That’s a great line,” said Takahata.

“That is recited, by the way,” the otter whispered nervously, “Lock Kicchou in a room with a deer I’ll have to wear a dunce cap again if I botched it—”

Takahata’s claw stayed on the camera button he pressed for a tad longer than he expected. Maybe he should spare a shot for these next to him; maybe he could film himself someday too. But for all that he knew Lady Toutetsu’s grin needed recording first.

“Now, the decisive roll! Will level 87 nine-times-empowered gunslinger-cum-seductress Patchinwai have what it takes to beat Great Vile Myriad-Legged Ancient Mountain Eater?” Yuuma narrated, “The odds are… Well, consult your nearest game-manual-exegete!”

The camera focused onto Yachie’s face, then onto Yuuma’s hand with the bronze kernels. The lasers lit up again. Yuuma feinted a toss, pulling Yachie’s gaze with her fingers’ movement, then just let the kernels slip through into the array.

“Well, I don’t expect to be here very long,” Tsumibito slouched back, “If I could really offer any advice… Just don’t put anything that’s happened today on your mind. Especially don’t let them put you off your project, whatever it is you’re the First of.”

The computers hummed, but for the last time. Sparks began flying out and smoke spew out from the panels. Panicking beasts ran around while Takahata cut rapidly across several camera angles on the carnage. The four at the table were unmoved; Yuuma ultimately received the page of calculations produced.

“Your own world won’t overthrow you,” Tsumibito looked up thoughtfully, “So you’ll have to leave nothing but it…”

Takahata couldn’t respond; he had six cameras to focus onto Yachie’s face simultaneously, in preparation for the results of the roll.

“… I couldn’t do it in my day. But look at all this. You have a pretty good chance— once you meet the First Panegyrist!”

“Hohohohoho!” Yuuma cackled, “How unlucky! Critical damage — overflow. Patchinwai slips and gets hit with twenty-seven kodoku attacks. Five probability modifiers all negative because she was born on the wrong day of the week. All attributes utterly obliterated. Dead parrot!” Yachie’s face crumpled up.
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Yuuka Kazami did not run. Yuuka Kazami never ran. The world she surrounded herself with was her joy, and running would shorten the time she could indulge in it before she reached her destination.

Those who saw Yuuka Kazami sometimes did run. And Yuuka did not mind this - In fact, she rather enjoyed it. Oh, she took little true pleasure in terrifying those far too weak to be of interest, but she was a youkai, after all. Fear was part and parcel to her very being.

But so were flowers, and the beauty that they both exhibited and inspired. And it was her duty, as the Flower Master of the Four Seasons, to ensure that flowers were being respected.

Yuuka Kazami lifted her parasol to her shoulder and began a slow, steady gait in the direction of the funny little Human Village in Gensokyo. Her gatekeeper saw her off, reminding her to please pick up some fresh apples. Yuuka believed that she wanted to continue her curious experiments with the fermentation of the apples to produce alcohol, but she didn’t bother asking. Elly seemed entirely unaware that Gengetsu had taken to just barely messing with the process in order to throw off her results, and Yuuka didn’t see much reason to inform her of the blonde dream demon’s sabotage. Watching Elly’s face contort in disgust when she finally got to try the final result was amusing enough. Perhaps, at some point, it would become sad rather than amusing. Perhaps then, Yuuka would have to teach Gengetsu some respect.

The beauty of early autumn surrounded her. Twice, on her walks through the Garden of the Sun, Yuuka had spotted the goddess of the autumn leaves, working hard at transforming the trees into a beautiful tapestry of reds, golds, oranges and browns. Yuuka had politely inclined her head toward her, and the goddess had decided to leave the Garden of the Sun alone for now. The sunflowers continued to soak up the sunlight even as it was just beginning to wane, but they would soon face the same fate that their contemporaries outside the Garden of the Sun faced. That of the inevitable winter and an inevitable end.

It was heartbreaking, but it was inevitable. It was the march of time. It allowed new life to bloom once the spring came.

Yuuka left the Garden of the Sun, leaving the sunflowers behind. She repositioned her parasol to sit better on her shoulder and began down the path toward the Human Village. It was a stretch of ground that had been packed down by boots over years and years of travel, something that had been formed only out of a desire to find the easiest path through the trees, much as a stream finds the path of least resistance.

But most humans rarely visited the Garden of the Sun. They remained fearful of Yuuka Kazami, so they kept away. Only some very strange outliers came by from time to time. This path, then. It had been trodden down over centuries. Trodden down by the footfalls of someone who regularly walked it. Someone who chose not to fly. Perhaps someone who, unlike most, wanted to stop and enjoy the scenery on her walk. This path was known as a desire path. A path desired by one ancient youkai.

Yuuka Kazami walked where she pleased.

She broke through the trees before long, emerging into the wild grassland and hills that surrounded the Human Village. Soon, she would see the spread out farmhouses and barns that housed a number of humans from the village. At this time of year, with the harvest festival soon approaching, the farms would be busy and the humans would all be living their funny lives with gusto, ready to stock up for the winter and enjoy plenty of good food. Soon, Yuuka would need to return to the village to stock up for the winter months. Her gatekeeper would likely spend the next several weeks reminding her, just as she had spent the previous few weeks excitedly telling her about her new fermentation plans and reminding her to procure more apples.

Yuuka paused. She stopped midway along the path, then turned to the side. Crouching down, she gently reached a hand out. It would’ve looked like just a particularly lumpy bit of grassland to anyone else, but Yuuka knew better. She reached out, her fingers tracing the weeping stem that had gotten trapped beneath the clumped up grass. The recent rain, perhaps, had caused it, weighing it down and blowing it into a situation that it could not recover from by itself. Fortunately, that was why Yuuka was here. Trapping her parasol between her neck and her shoulder, Yuuka used her other hand to pry the grass apart and pull the bush clover stem free. A smile crossed her face as she laid her eyes upon the small pinkish-purple buds that ran the length of the stem. “There you are.” She murmured reassuringly as she traced her fingers along the stem. “All better. Rather tenacious, aren’t you?” She released the bush clover and let it sway gently. Already, it looked healthier. Yuuka’s smile widened slightly and she nodded satisfactorily. It would live on through autumn, gently swaying in the breeze mesmerizingly.

There was no rain today, nor was there a particular abundance of wind. A light breeze ruffled her hair and gently caressed her face. The world currently resided in that strange, liminal space between summer and autumn where the rules of play that normally governed the land were suspended. Where balmy skies and blisteringly hot sunlight still beat down, but there was an undercurrent of chill in the air. Where Shizuha Aki worked her way across the leaves leaving beautiful trails of red, orange, and gold in her wake, but where trees full of green leaves still covered the majority of the land.

Further off of the path, at the roots of the bush clover that Yuuka had just freed, she could tell that there were plenty more. Some of the others were trapped, so Yuuka got to work on freeing those too, murmuring all the while about how they needed to take care of themselves, for they could not rely on Yuuka to be there to save them every year. Once she was done, she stepped back to admire the way the whole bush swayed. Perhaps it would captivate the heart of some enterprising human artist who would immortalise it in drawing before winter. Perhaps she would see it again before the cold took it from the world.

Yuuka hefted her parasol back onto her shoulder and continued to walk along the path. Overhead, the white and fluffy clouds stretched out endlessly between the vibrant blue of the sky. Yuuka paused, then looked slightly closer. Up there, in the sky and somewhere over Youkai Mountain, she could see bullets. A danmaku duel taking place in the skies above Gensokyo. Well, that was to be expected in this rowdy little world that she called her home. A human - Perhaps that green-haired Shrine Maiden from the mountain who’d once gotten a big head and tried to challenge Yuuka to a duel - spun through the sky, gracefully dodging the bullets fired by her opponent, who executed a Spell Card technique that had bullets spraying in dazzling arrays over the endless blue skies.

The bush clover lingered on Yuuka’s mind. The stem and the pink buds. The position of it, and the fact that she’d come across it while it was in need. Something about it…Some sort of memory. Flowers blooming in an autumn field…No, it wasn’t coming to her, and even in the corridors of her memories, Yuuka Kazami did not run. No, she would delicately stroll to her destination, and the answer would come to her in time.

The flower youkai counted off fifty-five steps in her head before she began to hear the sound of running water. There was a canal, and it ran through the Human Village before heading off into the further reaches of Gensokyo. Here, it was unmaintained and more like a simple river. However, it wasn’t the stream that drew Yuuka’s attention. Oh, it was certainly beautiful, and Yuuka could easily imagine a man spending a pleasant day fishing here, but there was something else on the riverbank. She took to the air just slightly to spare her boots from the wet marshland, then lowered herself for a closer look with her boots just barely skirting over the surface of the river as she floated over to get a better view.

A perennial, one with pink, lance-like leaves whose stem remained close up until right before the leaves themselves, where it expanded into multiple stems that came together, creating a flower that, much like a sunflower, looked like a single thing when it was, in fact, made of a much larger number of small leaves. White hairs bloomed out from the top of the flowers, as if a light dusting of snow had hit them. “Thoroughwort…” Yuuka murmured. “There’s been more and more of you as of late. Why is that, hmm?” The flower, of course, didn’t answer. Her fingers ran down the flower’s stem, and Yuuka wondered why it was hanging on. This was a flower that was ready to disappear for the winter, and yet it seemed to have stubbornly persisted. “Were you waiting for me, my dear? Because I saw you the previous year, hmm?”

Its cousin, the late thoroughwort, did not grow in this part of the world, and hadn’t even before Gensokyo had been a dream in its aggravating creator’s eye. Yuuka had seen it many, many years ago, when she still roamed the earth. Yuuka smiled gently at the flower. “I will surely see you in spring.” She told the perennial as she floated back to the path. “Perhaps I will see even more of you than I did in these past years. My, my…” Landing, she shifted her parasol to the opposite shoulder and carried on with her stroll. How many years had she known that little perennial? A year? Two? It would likely be approaching the end of its life cycle soon. The flower had staved off death for a few years, but death would pay it a visit before long. As it would for most living things. Yuuka Kazami persisted in this world, as she had done for more years than was worth remembering.

Yuuka Kazami did not run through life to reach its conclusion. She walked. She stopped to see the flowers.

The Humans who lived in Gensokyo made do with the space they had. That meant that when they had started to expand their farmland outward, they had built their homes out there too. As a result, what had once been a much more insular and tightly packed village had, over time, started to sprawl. Where once there were men keeping watch and preventing anyone who couldn’t exterminate a youkai from leaving the village, there was now farmland and tidy dirt roads. Unlit lanterns sat on the sides of the road and the houses of the farmers sat next to those, each one a haphazard construction built as the needs decreed rather than to some sort of standard. Regardless, the farmers themselves already tended to their fields. Those who lived in the furthest reaches from the village itself tended to hold a more open mind, and while they maintained a healthy distance, some who caught Yuuka’s eyes did offer her a polite and respectful bow. It was rather amusing, in truth. They seemed to think that they posed enough of a threat to warrant Yuuka Kazami’s attention.

On a whim, Yuuka stopped and stared at the next farmer she saw - A short, balding man with dark hair and a stocky build. He worked in his rice paddy as if he hadn’t noticed anything, but then seemed to sense her eyes and straightened up before turning around to see her, gripping her umbrella tightly and holding a carefully constructed intense gaze as her eyes bored into him. As she’d expected, he froze like a deer to a hunter’s gun. He stared back, his eyes radiating an admittedly well-restrained fear, and Yuuka cocked her head. That seemed to break the spell he was under, and he very slowly waved and bowed so deeply that Yuuka was surprised he hadn’t fallen over. Yuuka let him sweat for a moment longer, until she was certain that he was about to turn tail and bolt. Then, she spread her parasol to the side and lowered herself into a bow of her own, just slightly deeper than his. Done, she nodded, and the farmer turned and sprinted for his home as fast as he could.

For once, in a rare moment, Yuuka was forced to place her fingertips on her lips to stifle her giggle. Ah, the fun one could have with teasing was endless. Well, as long as no ornery Shrine Maidens or overzealous Yama got involved. That turned things from amusing to slightly aggravating. Although…antagonising Reimu Hakurei was a joyful activity in its own right. The girl overreacted to the slightest thing, and it was incredibly fun to watch her face cycle through all of the various human emotions that Reimu could make.

She turned, planning to continue her wonderful stroll through the beauty of nature, but something drifted past in a blur as she spun. Yuuka paused, then turned back. Opposite the farmer’s field lay an untamed field. A field that was yet to be claimed by humanity and still grew freely. Flowers dotted the edges already, but as it rose to a hill further beyond, Yuukas spotted something rather beautiful. Along the hill lay what appeared to be sheets of something that was silvery and almost gold in colour. Japanese pampas grass. Yuuka took in a faint breath and stepped closer, tilting her parasol to block out more of the sunlight so she could squint at the hill better. For this time of year, it shouldn’t have been this colour yet. Japanese pampas grass was green during the summer, and it was only around mid-autumn that its colour faded into the stunning, almost spectral silvery gold that she examined now.

Yuuka looked up at the sun and gauged the time to be somewhere in the early afternoon. She would have to add it to her schedule, but if she came but in the early evening, around sunset, she could watch the light catch on the grass, transforming the field from its current nature to a field of fire, where the light transformed the grass into an orange shade and made it almost glow with excellence. Ah, there was also the time when the wind would pick up and sweep the grass all in one direction, as if the whole world was telling her which path she should take on that day. What a wonderful flower. Something so simple, yet so eye-catching. “Thank you.” Yuuka whispered to the grass. “For allowing me to indulge in your beauty today.” With her thanks given, Yuuka returned to her full height and continued to stride in the direction of the village.

With each footstep, her mind travelled in the direction of whatever it was that she couldn’t quite remember. A thoroughwort, a bush clover, and now pampas grass… “Counting on my fingers…” Yuuka muttered under her breath, frowning. No, it still wasn’t coming to her. Something floated in the back of her mind. No matter. She would close in on it eventually. Coming closer to the village, Yuuka began to see more and more signs of habitation. The road began to get tidier and wider, and the farmer’s homes became larger and more decorated. She could spot arts and crafts through the open doors and windows. To her pleasure, she didn’t see a single flower that had been taken before its time.

Soon, the great wall of the Human Village came into view, and Yuuka heard a sharp intake of breath. She looked to the side, spotting a human. A young girl who couldn’t have been more than twenty years old, and she’d completely frozen as she caught Yuuka’s eyes. The fear in her eyes was evident, and for once, Yuuka wondered if she’d accidentally worn a bloody shirt. Much as the fear amused her, she didn’t particularly think that she’d done anything recently to warrant it. Yuuka turned toward the girl and watched her eyes widen. Yuuka Kazami did not run.

But the girl did.

She turned and took off in the opposite direction without a word, leaving Yuuka to stand there and watch her run blankly. No, she was confused. Yes, she hadn’t been to the village in some time, but it hadn’t been that long, and on the last occasion, she hadn’t even bothered trying to scare anyone. The village hadn’t turned and ran from the mere sight of her, though they were distinctly more nervous as they walked past her. So…What had changed? No, that was a redundant question. It was obvious. It was the same thing that was always responsible where a youkai was concerned.

Who had been spreading rumours?

The walls of the Human Village drew closer and Yuuka absent-mindedly pulled her vest tighter around her. If people were already turning and running at the sight of her, then…Well, there was no reason to make a bad impression. However…Something else caught her eye. The walls were not empty. No, far from it. Crawling up the walls and practically smothering them, Yuuka spotted something. “Kudzu…” She murmured. Japanese arrowroot. The perennial vine had likely been present on the ground when the humans had begun to set up the wall, and it had been left to grow and grow over time. Now, it meant that the wall was more like a large growth of vines than anything else. The leaves had sprouted over the summer, and Yuuka watched as a slight gust of wind blew the curiously curling flowers with their pink and purple leaves, sending them into a dance in just such a way to reveal their undersides. Grudge grass, it was sometimes called. Yuuka turned from the main path and took to the air, floating over until she was facing the wall of vines. “You’re overreaching.” She whispered to it. “I understand your wish to survive, but…You’re going to spread and spread until there is no more room for anything else.” She didn’t enjoy doing this, but she knew how important it was. Raising her hand, she pressed it against the vines and prepared to forcefully end their expansion.

And then…A voice. “U-Um…Miss…!” Frowning, Yuuka looked over her shoulder. Shaking like a leaf in the wind stood a tiny girl. She was about as tall as Yuuka’s hip, and her clothes were haphazard as if she’d been running with little care for her state of dress. “P-Please don’t destroy the arrowroot!” Her eyes were surprisingly focused and clear for how scared she looked. Honestly, just what had the villagers been saying about her? “Um, I mean - I - Please, Miss Youkai!” She balled up her shaking hands and bowed deeply, sending the ponytail that her hair was tied into flopping over her head.

Yuuka stared at her, wondering just what she’d come across. “You stay right there.” She whispered to the kudzu as she released it from her grip. Turning in mid-air, she floated toward the girl and alighted in front of her. “Head up, my dear.” She murmured, reaching out with a single finger and lifting the girl’s head up. She only trembled more. “Tell me your name.” The girl seemed reluctant. Names were powerful things, of course. She was smart to not give in immediately. Knowing a person’s true name could give someone power over them. Someone like a strong, ancient youkai.

Yuuka Kazami had little interest in things of that nature.

The girl held out slightly longer, but as Yuuka’s eyes continued to bore into her, she broke. “H-Hana. Um, Hana Hattoi, Miss Youkai…” As soon as the words slipped from her mouth, she squeezed her eyes shut and looked away.

“Is that so?” Yuuka quietly spoke to her, tilting her parasol to shield the girl from the sun. “Do you know who I am, Hana Hattoi?” Hana. Of course her name would be Hana. It seemed only fitting.

“M-My big sister said that you’re a really scary youkai…” Yuuka took in the girl’s face. There was indeed a slight resemblance there. The girl who’d seen her earlier, it would seem. “Th-That you might kill anyone who looks at you wrong.”

Yuuka tutted, shaking her head disapprovingly. Reputations were a powerful thing, and one such as hers needed to be maintained carefully. Fear, yes. Blind terror, no. That would only make her life more aggravating. Blind terror was to be saved for those who truly deserved to see what she was capable of. The ability to unnerve the rest was far too amusing to give up. “My name is Yuuka Kazami, little human. I am an incredibly dangerous youkai, but I do not find any joy in indiscriminate killing of those so much weaker than myself.” The girl swallowed weakly, but managed to look back up at Yuuka after a moment. “Is your big sister watching you right now?” Hana nodded, her hands still balled up into fists. “She should have approached me herself. Such cowardly behaviour...” Yuuka shook her head in disappointment. Hana here had courage. She’d come to confront her herself. Incredibly foolish, of course, but courageous nonetheless.

Yuuka reached out and took the girl’s tiny hand, then stood and led her back to the wall. “You made a request of me, Hana Hattoi.” Using her parasol, Yuuka indicated the wall. “You asked me not to destroy the kudzu vines here. Tell me why, hmm?” She looked back down at the tiny human whose knees were still trembling. “The kudzu - Japanese arrowroot - is a perennial vine. Do you know what perennial means?”

“U-Um, it’s a plant that, um, lives longer than two years, I think…”

“Very good.” Yuuka nodded. A human child who knew the term ‘perennial,’ and had a name that referred to flowers. How curious. “The Japanese arrowroot is an extremely vigorous grower, Hana Hattoi. If left unchecked, it will overtake everything around it. I abhor the needless killing of plants and flowers of every kind, but I recognise that, sometimes, there is no other choice.”

“I…Um, I know that it’s a vig-vigour…Er, fast grower, Miss K-Kazami.” Hana looked up at her. “I-I asked the guy who runs the flower shop!” She nodded seriously, looking at the vines. “But, um, he said that they keep this bit of the arrowroot around because they use it in…Um, stuff.” She finished lamely.

“...Stuff.” Yuuka replied doubtfully. “Might I ask if you have any idea as to what this ‘stuff’ you are referring to is?” There were plenty of uses for kudzu, after all. Basketry, and animal feed, to name a few. Yuuka knew that sometimes, making use of something like kudzu, with its vigorous growth rate, was for the best. Some plants could be used like that. Others…Well, Yuuka Kazami might get upset if they were killed before their time. “Perhaps I shall be inclined to acquiesce to your request, should you answer me well.” The girl stared at her, her bushy eyebrows furrowed. Yuuka stared back for a moment before it clicked. “Ah. It means ‘agree.’” Realisation dawned over the girl’s face and she began to think hard, her tongue darting out at the corner of her mouth.

“Um…Mister Flower Seller said that Miss Akyuu in the village uses paper made from the arrowroot for her writing.” Yuuka inclined her head slightly, thinking. She had met the chronicler before. An excitable thing, so certain of how old she really was despite her being little more than an infant in Yuuka’s eyes. She also remembered the man who had come to the Garden of the Sun to sketch her portrait for the Hieda girl’s work. That had been a rather strange day. “A-And, um, the village doctor makes medicine out of it. For headaches and things!” Now that she’d started, little Hana didn’t seem ready to stop. “Oh! There’s a little shop in the village that sells baskets, and I asked once and Miss Hirasaki who runs it said that they weave them out of arrowroot, and then she gave me a sweet because - Oh! Oh, Miss Kazami, she said that they make the sweets out of the arrowroot too! It’s called, um…Ku- K-Kut-”

“Kudzu, as I said earlier. That is another name for the Japanese arrowroot. Kudzu mochi, perhaps. Kudzu kiri, too.” Yuuka turned her head from the vines and back to Hana. “So, you humans do get sustainable use out of this fast-growing vine, hmm? Is that right, dear?” Hana nodded seriously, her earlier fear mostly faded. For an instant, Yuuka wondered if she should threaten her. Remind her that the next time she approached a youkai so thoughtlessly, it might be her last. However…The allure of teaching was difficult to deny. “One must treat perennial vines with respect, Hana. The plant remembers, you see. Always leave the roots, for they are the life of a plant. Treat all plants with respect, and when you must take from them, give them the gratitude that they deserve. Promise to remember this, little Hana Hattoi, and I shall agree to your request.”

“I promise, Miss Kazami! I’ll remember!” Hana told her, nodding seriously. “Er, you’ll…Um, a-acquiesce to my request?”

Yuuka didn’t laugh, but she did smile. And when she did, Hana looked up at her with astonishment. “Yes, I will leave the kudzu alone. If, one day, the village decides that it needs to be removed, then you, Hana Hattoi, will come to the Garden of the Sun and make a request of me. Will you be able to do that?”

“Yes, Miss Kazami!” This time, she nodded with determination. Would she succeed? Well, Yuuka Kazami would find out eventually. “And I’ll keep learning more and more about flowers!”

“I hope you will remember that, my dear.” Yuuka stepped back from the wall, then turned around. “I must leave you now. I have business to attend to, and I am sure that your cowardly big sister needs you to reassure her that I have not harmed you. Remember your promise.” She released Hana’s hand, and the tiny girl took a few steps away from her. “Perhaps your vocabulary will have grown to match your thoughtless courage when next we meet.”

“Yes! I - Um, I mean, I’ll definitely remember!” And Hana Hattoi bowed, even deeper than the farmer that Yuuka had watched earlier. “Th-Thank you for telling me about the kudzu, Miss Yuuka!” Yuuka hadn’t given her permission to use her name, but as the girl turned and took off over the dirt path and toward where her sister poorly hid behind the edge of a house, she decided to allow it. Hana’s sister fussed over her immediately, and when she spared a glance back at Yuuka, the flower youkai smiled politely and inclined her head. That, apparently, was enough to make the girl snap up little Hana and take off. Ah. Yuuka should have asked if someone had been spreading new rumours about her.

She shook her head and paced back around and toward the main entrance to the village. “Bush clover, arrowroot, pampas grass, and thoroughwort…” She mused, ignoring the villager who spotted her in his path and practically threw himself to the side to get out of her way. “Just what are you trying to tell me? Or…Hmm. What are you trying to remind me of?” She ignored the other humans who happened to be around the gate, even as they all froze and stared, slack-jawed, at her passage before hurriedly finding other places to be.

The Human Village was an ordered place. Far more so than it had been, years and years ago. The humans had built clear-cut roads and paths around the houses, and they’d built bridges and pathways alongside the canal, which was nothing like the stream bordered by perennial plants that she’d seen outside the village. Personally, Yuuka preferred the natural look.

She followed a path that her boots had beaten into the ground over many years. One that saw her pass through the busy streets. The humans gave her a somewhat wide berth, and she considered grabbing one and making them tell her exactly what had frightened them all so much. Even so, she was pleased that they were not screaming. There were a number of villagers around, and they certainly were all backing up into the walls, but they weren’t going much further. She stood out, of course. The villagers typically dressed in more…nondescript fashion. She, with her plaid vest and skirt, stood out like a thumb that was decidedly sore, though she would have liked to be known for a thumb that was more green than sore. None tried to approach her as Hana had. Even though the sun beat down and it was a beautiful day, suddenly it seemed as if the villagers would rather back up until they were inside their houses.

Up ahead, on her left, there was a shop. A shop that could have been like all the others: A mere curiosity at best. Somewhere she might have bought from and left without another word. Could have been, if it hadn’t been for a chance encounter a number of years ago. If a man hadn’t walked out of his store at the wrong moment and bumped into Yuuka, knocking her umbrella from her hands. At that time, she might have done something that would have seen a target the size of Gensokyo itself painted on her back, if she hadn’t noticed that he’d held something in his hands. A potted plant which he’d been on his way to place on display, and which had struck Yuuka right in the heart with its beautiful and striking purple petals.

And so, the Flower Master of the Four Seasons had become a regular patron and consultant of the florist of the human village.
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That had been many years ago. Events had happened in the time since. Events that had necessitated even more regular visits. Yuuka Kazami closed her parasol, pressing the tip against the floor as she stepped through the doorway of the flower shop. Unlike the humans who frequented the place, she did not need to take a moment to let her eyes adjust to the relative darkness of the store and strode further inside. She always started her visits in the exact same way, and she caught the owner of the store leaning against the counter and watching her with a small smile on his face as she strode directly to the back of the store, opposite the door. There were slats built into the roof to allow the sunlight to break through and hit the plants through the day, so right now, a very specific plant was practically glowing from the parcel of sunlight shining down on it. “How are you, my dear?” Yuuka whispered as she stopped in front of the flower that had brought her into contact with the shop in the first place. The bellflower, a vivid purple in colour and very well grown, did not answer, but then, it didn’t need to. Yuuka could tell right away that it was doing well, and the perennial bloomer had grown, outgrown the pot that Yuuka had first seen it in, outgrown a bigger pot, and now was planted in a far larger receptacle which supported it as it grew higher and higher. By now, it was taller than Yuuka herself. “I trust you’re being treated well?”

She heard a throat being cleared and looked over to the side, where the boy behind the counter pushed himself upright. Man, she supposed he would rather be called, but all humans were children to Yuuka Kazami. “Treated very well, Miss Yuuka.” He planted both of his hands on the counter and leaned forward. Yuuka stepped away from the bellflower and over to the counter. “I know you’d accept nothing less.”

“Very good.” Yuuka rested her parasol against the counter and nodded sharply. “The new pot is still working out well, I trust? You would inform me if it was causing the plant unnecessary stress, yes? Hmm?” She leaned forward, staring unblinkingly at him.

“Yes, yes! I want the same thing as you, Miss Yuuka! I’m not looking to let the oldest plant in the shop die on me, you know.” He stepped out from around the counter to join her on the shop floor. He’d been a boy - About the size of little Hana Hattoi when she’d first met his father, but now he’d outgrown both him and Yuuka herself. That didn’t make him less of a boy in her eyes, though. “Thank you, again, for the new pot. I mean, I had the Shrine Maiden knocking on the door on three separate occasions because she was sure that you’d snuck a curse in there, but thank you aside from that. Ah, don’t worry, she didn’t touch any plants.” Yuuka had indeed raised an eyebrow when Reimu Hakurei’s title was mentioned. Even with the advent of other shrines in Gensokyo, everybody still knew that ‘The Shrine Maiden’ was a title reserved for Reimu and Reimu alone. Perhaps Yuuka would need to add ‘overly paranoid’ to the list of things she needled the Shrine Maiden about until Reimu tried to needle her with actual needles in return.

Yuuka lifted her parasol and wandered back over to the plant. The boy followed her, stopping beside her as she ran her finger across the bellflower’s petals. “It’s doing fine, isn’t it? I learnt all I could, Miss Yuuka, but I’m still—”

“It’s doing fine.” Yuuka cut him off, then paused, frowning at the soil. “For the most part. Remember that bellflowers only need to be watered once a week. You seem to have gotten slightly overzealous. However, other than that, it’s doing fine. As are you, by the state of things in this shop.” While Yuuka had focused on the bellflower first, as was her custom when she visited, the rest of the shop was teeming with very well cared for plant life too. Not just the bellflower, but the wood sorrels, the azalea, and the wisteria, too. All of it showed a careful attention to detail, and Yuuka knew with a single glance that he was taking his duties seriously. “I have a question.”

“A…question? You have a question for me?” He asked blankly, pointing a finger back at his own chest as he blinked in confusion. “What could I possibly tell you of all people?” Yuuka supposed that under most circumstances, that would be true. It had certainly been true when she had decided to teach him botany in the past, similarly to what she had explained to Hana Hattoi outside the village walls. Now, he had enough of his own life to have knowledge that Yuuka Kazami did not.

“Why are the villagers running from the sight of me these days?” Yuuka asked him, looking over at him with a puzzled frown. “Aside from the obvious reasons, of course.” Her reputation did keep people scared of her, which was what she wanted, but this was a new low. “I find it to spoil my mood just slightly.”

“Aside…Ah, as in, has anyone been spreading rumours about you?” The boy thought for a moment, rubbing a hand against his chin. “Right, so…Yeah, there was something, Miss Yuuka. I mean, people are always saying that they saw you outside the village, or that you were outside their house, or up at the Hakurei Shrine. That’s the usual sort of thing, anyway. I think someone in the pubs has been saying that he came across you late at night once and you were right about to kill him when one of the village elders caught you, and you took off into the night.”

“Took…off. As in, I ran away?” Yuuka’s jaw clenched slightly harder.

“Yeah…Sounded like nonsense to me, Miss Yuuka. All the years my parents have known you, and all the years I’ve known you, and I’ve never seen you move at anything faster than a casual walk. Plus, I really don’t think you’d kill someone in the village like that. It’s just…It doesn’t seem your style.” Well, he wasn’t wrong there. The florist scratched his head. “And I don’t think you’re the type to run away from anything. Walking towards it seems more likely.”

Yuuka Kazami did not run. So, either this person had been mistaken, or someone was stealing her identity. “How disheartening…” She murmured. “Spreading rumours about things that I might actually do is one thing, but…Thinking I would dare run away? Making people think that I would run away? My, my…I just might have to teach this person a lesson.” She sharply stared at the bellflower, as if urging it to tell her who was pretending to be her.

“Er, Miss Yuuka, if you’re going to do that, would you mind not doing it right after you’ve been in here? It’s already hard enough convincing people that I’m not under your influence and that they can shop here without worry.” He raised his hands pleadingly. “If it hadn’t been for my parents, then…”

“You are under my influence.” Yuuka pointed out. “In the sense that I tell you to do something and you do it because you know that I am right and that I will steer you on the right path regarding the flowers. It should not bother anyone that you have the sense to take advice from someone who knows best.” And typically, it didn’t bother them. The villagers all knew that Yuuka visited this shop. They knew that she had done so for years on end, and they knew just as well as she did that she’d had nothing to do with the deaths that had occurred here in the past. She didn’t bother attempting to dissuade anyone, but she would feel a little bit annoyed if the shop she’d put some time into closed down because the villagers couldn’t handle one youkai visiting it. She hadn’t even been in the village when that fire had started. “But, if it will ensure that the shop continues to take care of the flowers, I will refrain. For now.”

“Y-Yeah…” The boy nodded weakly. “...Thanks.” He finally mumbled, smiling slightly. “I really do appreciate it.”

“As do the flowers.” Yuuka replied, nodding back. “Continue to treat them well, and I shall continue to treat you well.” She looked at the bellflower once more, admiring the way the sun bounced off of the vivid petals. Again, something was sticking in her mind. “Counting on my fingers…Flowers blooming in an autumn field…” She murmured, staring at the bellflower. What was it? What was she remembering?

“Er, Miss Yuuka? Are you okay?” She frowned, then turned back. “Oh, did I make you forget? Sorry, I just, uh…” Any more scattered attempts at apologies came to an end when the door opened and Yuuka heard footsteps.

“Oh, my. They really were telling the truth.” Yuuka spun on her heel, tilting her head. “”Yuuka Kazami is walking the streets of the village, Lady Hieda. You really shouldn’t go out there!” So the maids at my home said.” Her pleasantly purple hair shone, despite the fact that she’d just come in from the sun outside. The accessory she wore caught Yuuka’s attention immediately. The last time that Yuuka had seen the Child of Miare, she had been a tiny thing with far too much energy. In her hair at the time had been a small, flower-shaped ornament. It had been a simplistic thing, connected with a red bow and hanging from her hair.

“So I am.” Yuuka replied. “Are you frightened, Hieda no Akyuu?” In contrast, the Hieda no Akyuu of today stood as tall as Yuuka herself, and she wore a far more complex ornament to go with her equally complex kimono. Perhaps Yuuka would know what her kimono was if she didn’t vastly prefer her usual attire. Yellow sleeves with a floral pattern that showed at least a modicum of taste. A green layer above and a rich red hakama which had been shortened slightly below, separated by a red, white-laced obi.

“Oh, truly terrified, Lady Kazami.” Akyuu smiled lightly, bowing her head. The flower ornament drew her attention. The petals were pink, separating at the stem into five distinct petals that shot up into ribbon-like ends as if the petal was, in fact, tongues of flame. Only a short amount of the stem had been included, sewed into the fabric of the red ribbon that tied it to her hair. It wasn’t real, of course. No, a master artisan handcrafted that. “Oh, I suppose you’d be the person to ask, wouldn’t you? Do you like it?” The Hieda girl reached up and delicately caressed the ornament. “It’s a-”

“Fringed pink.” Yuuka replied, cutting the girl off. “Nadeshiko, it is sometimes called.” She stepped forward slightly, and Hieda no Akyuu didn’t run. That was courageous of her. “It grows in high altitudes here in Gensokyo. I’d like to know where you found it.”

“Ah, well, where else for high altitudes? Not far from the Moriya Shrine on Youkai Mountain.” Yuuka raised an eyebrow and Akyuu raised her hands. “All left well alone, Lady Kazami. I managed to convince a certain crow tengu to take some pictures of it when she was litter- er, dropping off her newspapers around the village. Then, I had a craftsman here in the village create a replica. Should I assume that he deserves a bonus?”

Yuuka thought for a moment. The fringed pink flowers that she’d seen in the past tended to have just a little bit more…randomness to their ends. A little more vividness to their colour. “Perhaps a small bonus.” She finally conceded. “However, I would not rely on photography alone. The best experience is in person.” But Yuuka Kazami remembered the last few Children of Miare, and she knew very well that they got frail as they approached the ends of their lives. This latest model couldn’t be far off, either. “If your maids didn’t want you coming out today, why did you choose to?” Just like Hana. Did Hieda no Akyuu have more courage than sense?

“What’s life without a little danger?” Akyuu shrugged, but there was a slight smile on her face. “I’ve interviewed you before. I truly do not believe you would attack unless provoked, Lady Kazami. Ah, but don’t mistake that for bravado. I am wary of upsetting you, and I am taking care to be as respectful as possible. Either way, I believe someone may have panicked just a little too much at your presence, because I’m sure that I saw someone headed in the direction of the Hakurei Shrine when I left.” Ah. Probably Hana Hattoi’s cowardly elder sister. On foot, but moving faster than Yuuka would. Maybe…an hour. Two at the most. “May I ask why you have come to the village?”

“I like to walk. From time to time.” Yuuka bowed her head slightly toward the bellflower behind her. “I’m checking in on some old friends.” And, she remembered, Elly wanted apples. She’d have to stop in by the markets. Harvest Season hadn’t happened yet, but it wasn’t far off, and summer had just barely come to an end. The apples were likely still ripe for fermenting. Or whatever it was Elly needed them for. “Appreciating the beautiful flowers of the seasons is one of my hobbies, Hieda no Akyuu. Bush clovers, pampas grass, arrowroots, thoroughworts, bellflowers…And now I have added the nadeshiko flower to that list. Hmm…I suppose it is a rather fitting flower for someone like you. A flower that represents traditional Japanese beauty. Yamato Nadeshiko, as they call it.”

“The flower of the grass. That was another description for it.” Akyuu replied, her small smile growing slightly. “Written about by Sei Shōnagon in The Pillow Book during the middle Heian era. She wrote about them amidst her other musings on her life as a lady of the court. I read about it, you see.” Then, she paused. “Actually, I might have…” A frown crossed her face, and Yuuka wondered if she should interrupt this conversation or not. “Sorry, no matter. I thought that I might have been there, but I don’t retain memories that aren’t relevant to the Chronicle, and it would have been around…Ami’s time, I think.”

“I see.” That was all Yuuka really had to say in response. The complicated life story of the Child of Miare was not on her agenda today. “Do take care of your ornament. It may not be the real thing, but it is a representation all the same. It deserves the same amount of respect.”

Akyuu bowed lightly. “I think I can handle that, Lady Kazami.” She made a movement toward the florist, but paused again. “Ah, I fear I must ask you, even though I already know what the answer will be.” Looking back over at Yuuka, Akyuu smiled thinly. “You know that youkai are typically not allowed in the village, yes?” They both knew this was a lie, of course. Yuuka had spotted at least two kappa and one crow on her way here. Disguised, of course, but it was obvious if you had any experience of the world. That, in principle, meant if you were anyone other than the typical human villager.

“Is that right?” Yuuka asked, raising her closed parasol to her shoulder. “Well, feel free to send someone to stop me.” With a pleasant smile, Yuuka Kazami stared straight into Hieda no Akyuu’s eyes. “Perhaps, if I’m still in a good mood by then, I’ll leave them mostly intact.” They both knew that Yuuka obeying the Spell Card Rules was more out of amusement and convenience than any fear of retaliation, of course. Akyuu’s smile remained, but her nod was slow and steady. “Either way, I do not plan to be here for long.” Turning back to the florist, she smiled slightly more warmly. “Do continue to take care of the flowers. And if you should ever desire further botany lessons, well…You know where you might find me.” Elly would be pleased to see him, too.

“...Yep. Yeah, sure do.” He nodded hurriedly. “I’ll - Er, I will keep that in mind, Miss Yuuka.” His eyes kept flicking to Akyuu, and Yuuka decided that it was probably time to move on. Fortunately, she was not alone in this assessment, as the florist immediately stepped up to Akyuu. “Lady Hieda, how are you? What’re you interested in?” Since he was now otherwise engaged, Yuuka decided to move on. She had something still stuck in her mind, and it was starting to become annoying. Autumn, autumn, autumn. Flowers. Fields. Counting on my fingers. Autumn.

Outside, the sun had lazily crossed the sky and the shadows had lengthened. Yuuka strode from the shop without a destination in mind. Her mind, in fact, was busy trying to puzzle out the memory that she couldn’t place. Had she spoken to someone? Said something? Been somewhere? It all seemed to come back to the flowers she had seen today. From bush clovers to bellflowers. She’d seen six flowers today, and all of them had been autumn flowers. Pampas grass, which she’d only caught right as it was in its silvery-gold state. Bush clovers swaying in the breeze. The bellflower, once known as the original morning glory flower rather than the flower referred to as the morning glory flower today.


Why did she know that?

Yuuka paused, her eyes shut. It was obvious that she knew that because she’d seen both flowers referred to as the same thing over the years, but…There was something specific. Now rather annoyed with her memory, she stopped walking. It was time to puzzle this out. “Counting on my fingers, flowers blooming in an autumn field…” She thought of the flowers once more. “There-”

“There are seven.” Yuuka’s eyes opened. She’d unconsciously walked into a green area. A small section of the village that sat next to the canal, filled with grass, trees, and flowers. There was a wide range of flowers, in fact. The villagers, it seemed, had let this area grow wildly. Smart of them, for that would attract insects and bees for pollination. There was a bench right next to the wall which protected the ground-bound villagers from falling into the canal, and here sat the girl who had interrupted her.

Sky-blue hair under a black, wide-brim hat adorned with peaches. Her shirt was ruffled, both in the sense that it had ruffled frills going down the centre in line with the buttons and in the sense that it had probably been worn for a while. Her skirt reflected the sky. Yuuka could see the clouds in the material, and they did not change position from her perspective despite the fact that the girl was tapping her long boots against the edge of the bench. Like some sort of projection, the clouds within remained constant despite the shifting of the fabric. A ring of diamond-shaped objects hung around her apron, connected to the black border with the strange, swirling patterns, reflecting the colours of the rainbow.

She rolled a small, cylindrical object that looked like a hilt between her hands, and she stared at Yuuka. “There are seven.” She repeated, nodding her head as if she was giving Yuuka a que to continue. Yuuka chose not to respond, simply spectating. “What, don’t know the rest? You started us off; the least you could do is finish the job.” Sighing, the girl leaned back on her hands, kicking her leg out and crossing it over the other. “It’s a good thing I’m here. I’ll finish it off for you.”

Yuuka wanted to punch her face into a fine mist.

She knew who the girl was. That air of arrogance was unmistakable, and she smelt like the purity that only the Heavens could bestow. A celestial. She knew which celestial she was, too, and perhaps ex-celestial was more appropriate. Tenshi Hinanawi, the celestial who had been cast out of the Heavens. Even Yuuka, reclusive as she was, had heard about her exile during the Perfect Possession incident. She had seemed especially unstable about it then. She’d not heard why, but she didn’t really care either. Ah - That small object she was holding was likely the hilt of her flaming sword. Of course, she knew that celestials were generally unbearable, as she had heard from Reimu herself on one of her trips to the Hakurei Shrine to annoy the Shrine Maiden, so she wasn’t all that surprised that Tenshi seemed to fit this description.

Speaking of being generally unbearable, Tenshi was raising her finger like she was a lecturer. “Counting on my fingers, the flowers in an autumn field. There are seven. They are bush clover, pampas grass, arrowroot, dianthus flower, and golden lace, also thoroughwort, and the bellflower.” She looked at Yuuka expectantly, then frowned when Yuuka didn’t respond. Yuuka, meanwhile, was wondering if the physical personification of fate existed in Gensokyo so she could beat it to death, or if beating that vampire who supposedly manipulated fate would suffice. Those exact flowers. She had seen all except one of those exact flowers, and she knew that poem. She knew it very well. “Ya-”

“Yamanoue no Okura’s waka poetry. He came up with the poem while looking upon a field in autumn.” Yuuka recalled, a small smile blooming on her face as relief passed through her. Finally, she remembered. She'd told him the names of those flowers. She didn’t perfectly recall, but she'd found him observing the field as she’d been travelling by, and he’d held such deep admiration for the flowers that Yuuka hadn’t even felt like terrorising him. Instead, she’d spoken to him. “Yes, Tenshi Hinanawi, I do know it. If you speak to me like that again, I will personally deliver your remains to Heaven.”

Tenshi’s grin only widened, and Yuuka’s eyes narrowed the tiniest fraction. “Ooh, temper, temper. There’s not much to do in Heaven, so I’ve studied plenty of books. Chinese classics, poetry collections…That poem is in the Man’yōshū, you know.” Yuuka didn’t know that, but she’d never seen the man again after she’d spoken to him, so it wasn’t a surprise. Still, it was rather pleasing to know that the poem she had spoken to him about had endured. “You’re staring at me a whole lot, you know. I know it’s hard to look away from the beauty of the Heavens, but you’re making me blush.” Tenshi flipped her hair with a breathy sigh, and Yuuka tightened her grip on her parasol.

“You look like a child.” Yuuka bluntly replied. A child that was attempting to appear more mature than she was. Well, few were mature in comparison to Yuuka. “And I find little interest in the Heavens. There is so much more variety here on the surface. So many more emotions to feel.” Heaven could never have the sheer diversity of the surface, and Yuuka would rather die than lose that.

“Oh, agreed. Heaven or not, there’s plenty more interesting things down here. Sometimes, I think that I’m incredibly lucky to be here instead of there.” Yuuka wondered if she was incredibly unlucky for running into the annoying celestial. Tenshi reached behind her and withdrew a pot that had been sitting on the wall behind her. Yuuka Kazami took in a sharp breath as the final flower of the day appeared before her, perfectly in line with the previous six. The golden lace. A beautiful perennial flower with tall, airy stems that were slightly translucent. They were topped with yellow flowers, which shone in the sunlight like gold. Yuuka didn’t see them often, but as a perennial, they tended to be on the green side in their first year. After that, they provided a beautiful spot of colour in the fields with their yellow and white flowers. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

“It is a beautiful flower. Radiant and eye-catching.” Yuuka cautiously replied. She knew what Tenshi Hinanawi’s behaviour was usually like, and there was a worry at the back of her mind. “...In your possession. What do you intend to do with it?”

Tenshi shrugged. “Plant it, I guess. I don’t know. Bought it from that flower shop on a whim.” She lifted the pot, examining it from different angles. “It’s pretty.”

“”Plant it.” Is that all you have to say?” Yuuka stepped forward. Her voice had dropped slightly. “You’ve bought it at the beginning of autumn, and it will die if you are not careful. You’ve taken its life into your hands. The best you can say is that you guess you’ll plant it?” She came to a halt right in front of Tenshi, who looked up at her, squinting through the sun. “It is pretty. It is a plant that deserves respect. Do you think it is a joke, Tenshi Hinanawi?”

Tenshi lazily shrugged. “It’ll be fine. Luckily, I can’t be unlucky. I’ll plant it and it’ll grow fine. You’re getting rather worried about nothing much, aren’t you?”

“Are you trying to pick a fight?” Yuuka asked. “I would carve some respect into your soul, but I will not do so while it would endanger this plant.” At this point, she was looming over Tenshi by rather a large amount. “Do you know what else they call the golden lace?”

Tenshi, looking infuriatingly unbothered, shrugged. “No?”

“Ominaeshi. A flower that even a woman of particularly rare loveliness pales in comparison to.” Yuuka watched Tenshi's reaction.

The blue-haired girl frowned, making Yuuka wonder if she was going to start whining. Then, she shrugged. “I guess they never met a celestial before, then.” In spite of herself, Yuuka laughed. It was more of a laugh at the cheek of the girl than anything else. “What do you want? I didn’t buy this so I could throw it off of a mountain, you know.”

“I want to know that you’ll take care of it. Your celestial luck is no excuse for your lack of care. Will you do right by it?” Yuuka wondered if that cowardly girl had reached the Hakurei Shrine yet. Was the Shrine Maiden on her way? How much time did she have to convince the celestial to treat the golden lace with respect?

“You’d be amazed at what my luck can do. And I am going to take care of it.” Tenshi’s eyes seemed to have hardened slightly. “Alright, I’ll bite. What do you want? Clearly you think I’m incapable of taking care of it, and I’ve not got much else to do at the moment.” Yuuka, in a knee-jerk reaction, almost said something that would definitely have started a fight, but…There it was again. The allure of teaching.

“Plant it in full sun. Partial if you have no other choice. It can grow in most types of soil, but somewhere that fairies frequent is best - Particularly if it is somewhere that Lily White will pass by during the beginning of next spring. Do not leave it stifled in that pot, or I shall be greatly annoyed. It will grow best in open soil.” Yuuka shifted her parasol to her other shoulder and examined the golden lace. It was still rather young. “How long do you think it takes to grow?”

“Grow?” Tenshi frowned, scratching her cheek. “Er...a couple months?”

“Two to five years.” Yuuka replied sharply, and Tenshi’s eyes widened before she let out a groan and let her head fall back. Her hat, which should have fallen off her head and into the canal, just so happened to get caught between the arm she was still leaning on and her back, wedging it in place long enough for her to grab it. “See? You were woefully uninformed. How am I to know that you wouldn’t have grown bored and abandoned it? Now that I’ve seen you, I have to ensure that you’re taking this seriously.”

“Oh, give me a break. I’ll plant it somewhere sunny. What, are you planning to micromanage me?” The celestial hopped to her feet, returning her hat to her head. “Huh.” She said, staring at Yuuka blankly.


“You’re…shorter than I thought.” Tenshi replied as she scratched her head.

Yuuka blinked, baffled. “Are you trying to make me attack you?” She incredulously asked. “Is this an elaborate plea for suicide? I am happy to oblige, but I suspect that several parties would disagree.” She fixed Tenshi with a sharp stare for several seconds, then shook her head. “No matter. I’m still unconvinced that I can trust that golden lace in your care.” Tenshi looked like she was going to complain. “Nor am I sure that I can trust you in regards to responsibilities.”

“Oh, who are you to judge me? I can handle a single plant!” Somehow, strangely, she seemed to have struck a sensitive spot. Tenshi’s eyes flashed and she balled up her hands into fists. “I’m not that unreliable, and I’ll prove it to you as well as-” And she stopped. She froze, panic flashing through her eyes. Yuuka watched her impassively. She’d just given something away.

And now, for some strange reason, she thought of Hana as she looked over at Tenshi. There was determination there, even though she’d made a poor decision. In Hana’s case, it had been to senselessly run up to a dangerous youkai. In Tenshi’s case… “You said that you thought it was pretty. Tell me, what made you buy it? Tell me your true motives.” She didn’t believe for a second that it was on a whim. Nor did she believe that Tenshi had told her the truth today.

Tenshi seemed to be at war with herself. She clenched and unclenched her hands, let her eyes flicker from side to side, and drew in breaths before releasing them in a huff. “Why the hell would you care?” She growled, crossing her arms. “What am I, a sulking child?”

“Yes.” Yuuka lazily replied, tilting her parasol slightly. “And for the sake of those under your care, I am asking you if there is a reason that you have bought the golden lace. If you have bought this to brag to someone, or as a status symbol that you will shortly stop caring about, then I will have to take more drastic actions. Are you so weak that you are unable to admit when there is something eating away at you? So, Tenshi Hinanawi…Talk.” Yuuka knew very well that when she stared at someone with her blood-red eyes, they tended to break before long. Tenshi may not have been just anyone, but she was still susceptible.
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And finally, she broke. “...Fuck you. I’m not weak.” Yuuka continued to stare at her. “I just - I…” Even Yuuka knew the signs of a dam about to break, so she just stood still and watched until Tenshi let out a frustrated sort of half sigh, half laugh. Above them, a bird perched on the roof of a nearby building and sang. “Do you know Shion Yorigami?”

“Poverty god.” Yuuka replied. She’d seen her. During what had been deemed the Perfect Possession incident, the Horismriver Ensemble had performed at the Garden of the Sun. Yuuka had watched from a distance as Reimu Hakurei and Yukari Yakumo had fought two gods in the skies above, and she’d watched with idle curiosity as the poverty god’s power had run out of control. Fortunately for her continued existence, the projectiles that had emanated from her had not done any harm to the flowers. “I understand that she was last seen in Former Hell.”

Tenshi laughed joylessly. “Yeah. That’s right. Went swanning off down there with her sister. She’d been staying with me before that - My luck overpowered her bad luck.” She fell silent, leaving only the running water of the canal behind them, the distant sound of the villagers, and the birdsong to fill the empty space. Hmm…So Tenshi did have somewhere to live, it would seem. Well, to a poverty god, just about anywhere likely would have been an upgrade to her.

“I notice that you’ve used the past tense.” Yuuka pointed out. Somewhere in the distance, a child yelled.

“Yes, thank you, I’m well aware.” Tenshi sounded just as frustrated now as she had earlier. “Do you remember that weird incident where all the seasons happened at once?” The Four Seasons incident. Yes, it had seen a number of fairies in the Garden of the Sun grow strangely powerful, which had only made them go wild and start several entertaining fights. Yuuka had sensed unnatural energy from the fairies instantly, though she’d decided that she could just leave it up to the Shrine Maiden, since the Garden of the Sun had only grown more summery in the incident. “Somehow…Shion got empowered by it. Not in a way that made her run wild, but just enough that…” Tenshi paused to growl and clench her fists again. “...It made her aura of misfortune strong enough to overpower me.”

“Okay.” Loosening her grip on her parasol and twirling it slightly above her head, Yuuka nodded. Tenshi glared at her, clearly expecting a more significant reaction. “What? Continue explaining.”

It took her slightly longer to get going again. “...Shion’s a bit meaner than most people realise because she hides it under her more pitiable traits. Like…I get it, it makes people more likely to do something for her, but…Once she realised that I wasn’t very reliable as a good luck charm anymore…She decided that I wasn’t all that useful and left.” Tenshi wasn’t crying, which was a blessed relief, but she did look rather miserable around it. “Imagine that! A celestial, and she said that I must not have been up to the task! Like I was just there for her convenience! So she could have a better time!” Tenshi slammed a fist against the stone wall she was standing in front of. “And then I found out that she went off to Former Hell with her sister to run some sort of scam using that black water stuff. Back to her old tricks, I guess. Even her sister seems more genuine than her, sometimes. And then I feel awful for thinking that.”

Yuuka thought. Yuuka contemplated. Yuuka considered. “So, you bought the golden lace because…”

Now that Tenshi had gotten talking, she couldn’t seem to make herself stop. Again, Yuuka thought of that little girl she’d met outside the village. “Because I can do something useful. Because I am up to the task. Because - Because I need to know that…” Tenshi buried her face in her hands for a moment, taking in a shaky breath, then looked back at Yuuka, who watched her passively. “Because I need to know that something can rely on me.” And with that, all the energy dropped out of Tenshi’s body and she slumped down onto the bench she’d had her boots on previously.. Evidently, she’d been stewing on this for quite some time. “Happy?” She growled at Yuuka, glancing up for only a moment before letting her head drop again.

Once more, Yuuka took a moment to think. She understood what was happening, and she could see why Tenshi wanted to take care of the golden lace now, but it didn’t make her any more given to sympathy than she usually was. “With the explanation? Yes, I suppose so.” A pause - The flapping of wings as the bird on the roof took off filled it - passed by. “It may be understandable, but it does not change the fact that I fear for the flower’s safety under your care.” Not to mention…Where did Tenshi even live? She had been exiled, and for all Yuuka knew, she lived under a rock somewhere. She couldn’t entrust the flower to that sort of life. It would be cruel. However…She did have an idea that would both please her, and might even work well on Tenshi.

So, she reached out and pushed Tenshi’s chin upward. She made it until she could see Tenshi’s eyes before what she was doing filtered through the ex-celestial’s mind and her hand was slapped away, but it meant that Tenshi was looking at her, which was the point. “Come with me.” Yuuka murmured.

“W-What?” Tenshi stammered, her eyes the perfect picture of confusion and her previous misery seemingly forgotten for now. In fact, heat began to spread across her cheeks. “What’s wrong with you? What - What the hell are you talking about?”

Yuuka had been looming over her, but now she crouched down to reach Tenshi’s seated height. “Come with me.” She repeated more kindly. “Bring the golden lace. I believe it would be more beneficial for it if we were to work together, don’t you?” Yes, perhaps it would help with whatever misery Tenshi was feeling. And Yuuka’s heart - though many would think otherwise - wasn’t made of ice. Sometimes, a good deed was worthwhile. If the Yama was here, she might have even praised her for that.

Of course, her ulterior motive of wanting to watch the golden lace grow for herself went unmentioned.

Tenshi, meanwhile, stared at her in bemused confusion. “Y-You’re talking about it like it’s a child or something.”

“Is it not? It may be a plant, but it is in its infancy. How you nurture it from here will directly affect how it grows. So, I’m giving you a chance to give it the best growth you can.” Yuuka resisted the urge to glance over her shoulder, just in case Reimu had already arrived. “And I shall tell you exactly how to best care for it. This, you might say, is your chance to learn exactly how to have something rely on you.” Tenshi remained dubious, her brow scrunched up and her body rigid. Yuuka decided to go one step further. “Because while I have my doubts about your ability to care for the golden lace alone, I believe that you could learn. I believe that I could teach you to care for all manner of plant life in time.”

And that had struck a chord, planting a seed in Tenshi’s heart. Her brow relaxed first, and her body followed. “You…Really think so?” She hesitantly questioned Yuuka, who nodded silently. “I’m - I mean, I’m sure I can learn. I’d be a useless celestial if I couldn’t master this, and I’m so lucky that I can definitely learn whatever I need to.” She seemed to be convincing herself just as much as she was speaking to Yuuka. Finally, with one more deep breath, she nodded. “Alright. I’ll come with you. We can plant it in the Garden of the Sun.” Technically, Yuuka was considering planting it in the inner courtyards of Mugenkan, but they could cross that bridge when they got to it. For now, she stood back up and nodded. Tenshi placed the flowerpot containing the golden lace on the ledge behind her, then got to her feet. “So…Shall we…” And she trailed off, her gaze focused on something else. Almost instinctively, Yuuka knew why. It was just typical fate nonsense. Of course, she would show up right now of all times.

“Hey!” Sighing, Yuuka turned, shifting her parasol on her shoulder. On the path - Which was noticeably empty now - Reimu Hakurei stood, a set of sharp needles in one hand and her gohei resting on the floor in the other. “Wait…Tenshi? And Yuuka? What the hell…?” She shook her head and let out a frustrated noise. “Fine, whatever! What the hell are you doing here!?” Shouting in a rather inelegant manner, Reimu raised the gohei in their direction.

Tenshi blinked. “Er, I-”

“Not you!”

Yuuka made a show of checking whether or not Reimu was pointing at anyone behind her. “Me? Whatever could you mean, Reimu?” The youkai smiled genially at the youkai exterminator. “I’m on a lovely walk, and I was just having a lovely talk before you interrupted us.”

Reimu stomped closer. “Yuuka, you know the rules!” Reimu had grown tall over the years. Once, in the past, when Yuuka had been awoken from a nice nap, it had been to find an apoplectically cross miniature Shrine Maiden in Mugenkan’s hallways, ready to beat Yuuka to death for something that Yuuka had honestly forgotten doing. She still didn’t really remember why Reimu had been planning to seal Mugenkan. Had there been some sort of plant involved? Had Yuuka decided to tease the Shrine Maiden by sending a little attack against the Shrine? Well, it didn’t really matter anymore. What mattered now was that Reimu was actually taller than Yuuka these days, and was thus capable of leaning over her. Not that it really accomplished much, but she supposed it was something for the human to feel proud about. “I look the other way when you go to visit that flower shop because I know the guy running it likes you, but you can’t be wandering around the rest of the village and scaring people! Why can’t you show up when it’s quieter?”

“I show up when I show up.” Yuuka lazily replied. “What was her name?”

“What was - Who?”

“The girl.” Yuuka elaborated. “The one who’s been telling tales. She must have only arrived recently, yes?” Reimu blinked, frowned, and scowled. “Would you kindly tell me?”

“...Hikari.” Reimu finally muttered, letting her eyes drop for a split second. “Look, that’s not the point! Get out of here! The villagers are all getting nervous because there’s been rumours about you lately!” Brandishing her collection of needles - Youkai-made, but Yuuka wouldn’t tell - and holding her gohei out, Reimu attempted to look threatening. It didn’t really work because Yuuka still just saw that tiny version of her who’d been in the hallways of Mugenkan.

“I’ll ‘get out of here’ when I want to, Reimu, and no pitiful, simple-minded Shrine Maiden will tell me otherwise.” Yuuka’s smile only grew more disarming, and Reimu only grew increasingly agitated and increasingly armed as a result, if the needles suddenly being wrapped in ofuda were any indication. “Do you not remember how our last fight went? Ah, well you funny little humans have funny little memory spans, don’t you? Perhaps you should stick a note to your chest to remind you that you are, in fact, a Shrine Maiden. It might even make you act like one for–”

Yuuka had always had a talent for pushing Reimu’s buttons. Reimu had always had a talent for spectacularly flying off the handle once pushed a little too far. This, Yuuka decided, was evident in the three sharp needles currently flying at her head. Any sane youkai - Which was an oxymoron because all youkai were a little insane - being attacked inside the Human Village by a youkai exterminator would run. Yuuka Kazami was not a sane youkai. And Yuuka Kazami did not run. Instead, she tilted her head to the side and allowed the needles to easily fly past her head, turning to watch as they headed straight for the wall.

Specifically, the wall that the golden lace pot was currently sitting on. The one that Yuuka had forgotten the location of while teasing Reimu. For once, Yuuka felt a chill run through her. The needles - Of course, because something clearly had it in for her today - were going straight for the pot. They’d shatter it. They’d destroy the roots. Or, the plant would fall in the canal and be destroyed that way. It would never get the chance to grow the way it should. Yuuka would never get to see it planted in Mugenkan. And yes, Tenshi would probably hate her for it.

And it would be Yuuka Kazami’s fault.

But even though Yuuka could never have made it in time, there was someone that could. Tenshi Hinanawi, who’d been completely unbearable at the start of the conversation and who had only just revealed her reason to care, suddenly shifted her arm. Yuuka did not believe in the slightest that the positioning had been intentional. No, the hand of luck had reached in and corrected Tenshi’s arm, and three penetrating needles slammed into it. One in the back of her hand, and two in her forearm. Even then, Reimu had a throwing arm that rivalled youkai and gods, because the needles still nearly forced themselves out of the other side of Tenshi’s hand. In the end, the furthest needle thrown stopped barely a finger’s width from the flowerpot.

Blood dripped from the wounds in Tenshi’s skin and splattered onto the wall. Otherwise, everything was silent. Well, almost silent, because the needles were crackling. As if they were facing strange resistance that they didn’t understand. Yuuka stared at Tenshi, feeling the most dumbfounded that she had in centuries. That had been a very selfless act for a celestial, and committed to save a plant. Yuuka had been wrong. Maybe Tenshi didn’t have the knowledge, but she did care enough to look after the plant. The flower youkai heard some sort of stammering from behind her and turned back around to see Reimu, her hand buried in her sleeve and her gohei clutched tightly. Despite that, she wasn’t moving. “Wh-What the-”

“Ouch.” Tenshi growled, cutting her off. “That - Uh, that actually kind of hurts. Wow. What the hell did she pack into these?” Tenshi lifted her arm - Now covered in tiny little rivulets of blood - and inspected it. “Reimu.” She muttered through gritted teeth. “Can you - Please - pull these out? They’re wrestling awfully with my body.”

Reimu blankly stared at the needles for a second like she was confused about them still being stuck in Tenshi’s arm, then blinked and nodded her head. “I- Uh, yeah. Right.” Leaving her sleeve alone, Reimu stepped forward, then stopped as Yuuka suddenly moved into her path. “What?” Reimu almost whined. “What? Why are you always like this? Ugh…”

“Do not attack any further.” Yuuka murmured to the Shrine Maiden, her eyes piercing in their seriousness and her voice deadly. Anyone else would have turned and ran. “You very nearly destroyed something important to me just then. Try again, and I’ll curse you myself.”

Reimu was not one to be threatened, so she fixed her dull reddish-brown irises right back with similar intensity. “Don’t give me a reason to, then.” She replied, stepping around Yuuka and continuing over to Tenshi. “Right, let’s see…Ooh, that looks, uh, bad.” Yuuka’s eyes continued to watch the empty space that Reimu had just occupied with an unbidden amused smile blooming on her face. What a strange Shrine Maiden Gensokyo had, she thought to herself. “I thought you celestials had skin that was as hard as steel or something.” For some strange reason, Yuuka almost laughed. Not because of what Reimu had said, but…The world was a strange place.

“We do, but I guess - Ouch!” Yuuka finally turned to see Reimu crouched over Tenshi’s arm, experimentally poking at the needles embedded in her skin. “I said, we do, but I guess even an irate Shrine Maiden can beat all the good celestial fortune in the world when she’s annoyed enough. Maybe it’s because you wrapped the needles in ofuda and let your temper get the best of you. Oh, for - Just pull the things out, Reimu! I’ll heal just fine once they’re out. The spiritual energy in them is trying to fight through the celestial blood in me. That’s why they’re crackling like that. And - Yes, it is kind of painful, so I’d appreciate it if you’d stop staring at them and pull them out!”

“I can see that they’re crackling, thank you. I’m wondering why they stopped. They should have punched right through.” Reimu went to poke the needles again. Tenshi, annoyed, slapped her hand back down and growled something about being lucky. “Oh, fine. Move your arm so I don’t destroy your precious potted plant. Over - Stop whining! Hold your arm over-” This time, Reimu was the one to slap Tenshi. “Not over the canal, you idiot. Sure, it’s not enough blood to cause any problems for the villagers, but celestial blood is poisonous to youkai, and plenty of them get their water from this stream too. I doubt it’s a big enough quantity to actually cause problems, but Yukari would really have my head if I risked half the youkai in Gensokyo getting poisoned for something as stupid as this. Over the grass, here.” She dragged the celestial by her uninjured arm away from the water and over the grass. “Alright, this, uh…Probably hurts a lot.” Raising a hand, Reimu hovered it over the first needle in Tenshi’s hand and began to murmur under her breath. Likely some sort of spiritual magic, Yuuka thought. It lasted for a few seconds longer, and then Tenshi yelled painfully as the needle suddenly shot forward at triple the speed Reimu had thrown it at and embedded itself into the grass. “Oh, hey, that does work!” Reimu cheerfully exclaimed.

“You didn’t know!?” Tenshi exclaimed at a much higher pitch. “What the hell kind of Shrine Maiden are—” She yelled again as Reimu moved onto the second needle, grabbing Tenshi's injured hand to hold it still. A few more moments passed punctuated only by the occasional shouts from Tenshi as the second and third needle forced itself out of her arm. “You know,” She began once all three needles were in the ground, “I really think we need to work on your temper.” Reimu tried to slap her in the back of the head, but missed as Tenshi squatted down and examined her arm. “Ooh…Not used to seeing so much of my own blood anymore. Magic needles…” Casting an eye back up at Reimu, who raised an eyebrow, Tenshi managed a thin smirk, “And magic hands.”

“The favour of the gods, actually.” Reimu bluntly replied. Sighing, she reached down and dragged Tenshi up to her feet. “Well, you can always blame Yuuka for this. She shouldn’t have been in the village at all, and she definitely didn’t need to goad me into attacking.” Reimu looked back over her shoulder at Yuuka, clearly ready to throw more cruel, cruel insults. “Isn’t that right?”

“Goading?” Yuuka repeated, watching the pair. “My, my. What you call goading, I call stating the truth. If this upsets you, then I believe that is something that you should work on.” Reimu shot a rude gesture her way, so Yuuka simply smiled placidly and waited for the pair to finish. Patience was a virtue, after all.

“Okay, I’ll be fine…” Tenshi raised her hand, which already looked a tiny bit less injured than it had previously. “Wouldn’t be much of a celestial if three little needles could put me down.”

“Ex-celestial.” Yuuka heard Reimu mutter under her breath. Tenshi shot her a dirty look, but didn’t reply as she tried to wipe some of the blood from her arm. “Alright, I got dragged away from a really good book for this, so I’d like to get going.” Stalking up to Yuuka, she crossed her arms. “Sooner rather than later.” She looked over at Tenshi. “And while there’s technically no reason you can’t be here, you are here and talking to her,” Yuuka swatted Reimu’s gohei away with an annoyed tut as the Shrine Maiden pointed it toward her, “So you should probably go too. For now, at least. And especially so you’re not bleeding all over the floor. The villagers will panic.”

“Ugh, fine. I’ll be feeling this for a while, anyway.” Tenshi straightened her hat on her head, then awkwardly lifted the golden lace pot with one arm. “Shall we, Lady Kazami?” She had a cheeky grin on her face now despite the slight grimace about her other arm, and Yuuka thought that the cheerfulness definitely suited her more than her earlier moping.

“We shall.” She finally said. “Dear celestial.” Tenshi snorted and spun around, heading in the direction that led out of the village. Yuuka made to follow, then paused when she felt a hand grasp her wrist. Slowly, she looked back at Reimu, who, rather annoyingly, remained unfrightened. “Yes?” Yuuka tersely asked. “I might begin to think that you want some real trouble if you continue like this.”

Reimu yanked her back, and Yuuka just barely restrained herself from slapping the girl. “I’m not looking to start any big confrontations, but I have to investigate the complaints that the villagers turn in. That Hikari…She was beside herself about her sister. Hana, she said her name was.” Reimu’s voice was a quiet murmur, and to anyone else, this would look like a normal conversation. “Said that a terrifying green-haired youkai was bewitching her. Now, I know that’s not how you operate, so…” With a surreptitious glance around, Reimu leaned in closer. “Between you and me, what did you say to her?”

Yuuka didn’t often actually think about chance. She let things happen as they would, and she preferred it that way. But…today had already been full of chance encounters. All seven flowers of the poem in the Man’yōshū, then a chance encounter with a little human girl, followed by a chance encounter with Hieda no Akyuu, and a chance encounter with Tenshi Hinanawi during which the chance encounter with Hana Hattoi had caused Yuuka to extend an offer she typically would never do. Today, chance was at the forefront of everything that happened to Yuuka, so…She would take one more chance. She would tell Reimu the truth.

“I spoke to her about the Japanese arrowroot. I taught her about it, and when she proved to be a rather good learner, I told her that if the village ever decided to remove it, she should come and fetch me. I didn’t threaten her. I was curious about her. She has a potential love for plants that could be nurtured.” Reimu stared incredulously. “You may choose not to believe me, but I can be quite friendly.”

“No, I…You don’t seem like you’re lying. It’s just…Not what I expected to hear.” That would be Reimu’s intuition at work, Yuuka supposed. “Uh, right, well…Stop riling people up, stop giving me extra work, and stop…I don’t know, stop being so smug.” Yuuka opened her mouth to be smug. “No, I guess that one’s impossible.” Yuuka closed her mouth, deciding to save the smugness for another day. “Whatever. Just get going, will you?”

“Why, certainly.” Yuuka tapped a finger against Reimu’s hand and gave a deep bow once she’d been released. “Ah - One thing first. Someone has been spreading rumours about me.” Reimu let out some sort of noncommittal noise in response. “Rumours that I find very distasteful, including the idea that I would ever run away from a fight.”

“Someone spread a rumour about you running away?” Reimu repeated incredulously. “Have they met you? There’s exactly one time that I think you ran away from something, and you were in your pyjamas, so I don’t think it counts.”

“No, that one does not count. I went to get changed. What kind of youkai would I be if I’d fought you seriously in my pyjamas? It wasn’t my fault that you couldn’t keep up back then.” Yuuka hadn’t run away from Reimu Hakurei that day. No, she had noticed that the girl was a little more powerful than she’d thought and decided to give the tiny Shrine Maiden her full attention. “Regardless, I believe that a tanuki may have been involved in these rumours. That, or a pipe fox - I hear there’s a particular one skulking around these days. Consider this a request and a threat in one. Deal with this, or I will deal with it. I’m sure you know which is preferable.”

Reimu groaned. “Yeah, I definitely do. And while I really shouldn’t be sorting out youkai rumours, I definitely don’t want you thinking that it’s time to go on a rampage until you find the culprit. I’ll look into it, so in exchange, can you tone down your visits here? Or at least make them a little less, uh, terrifying to the villagers? Please?”

Yuuka very much enjoyed teasing the villagers, but she knew well enough that a favour for a favour made the world go round. And Reimu had even said please… “Yes, I think that can be arranged. For some time after the deed is done, at least. My thanks.” She inclined her head. “Now, I would hate to disrupt your…busy schedule.” Spinning, Yuuka blocked Reimu’s attempted gohei hit with her parasol, then began to stroll away. She cast one last look behind her, spotting Reimu grumbling to herself while she knelt down and yanked the needles she had used on Tenshi out of the ground. All in all, that seemed to have been a successful session of annoying the Shrine Maiden, so Yuuka felt rather content.

Just outside of the village, Yuuka found Tenshi waiting for her. “Finally.” The blue-haired girl cried. “Thought you’d run off. Okay, so, what exactly are we doing?” Her arm already looked half-healed, as if the wound had happened weeks ago.

“I don’t run anywhere.” Yuuka replied, twirling her parasol idly above her head. “We shall return to the Garden of the Sun, and then we will decide. I should stress, however, that it is early autumn. I wouldn’t expect any extravagant growth before the plant dies back for the winter. It is a perennial, however, so we can expect to see rather nice returns once spring and next summer arrive.”

“...Right. Okay, you know best…For now.” Yuuka cast a sideways glance at Tenshi, who smiled cheerfully. Shaking her head with a slight laugh, they continued on their way back toward the Garden of the Sun. Yuuka Kazami did not run through life, and if she did, she might have missed moments like these. She might never have noticed the flowers she had today. She might never have saved the golden lace from its potential end. So, in the end, she was perfectly fine to walk.

“Lady Yuuka!” As they approached Mugenkan, Yuuka caught Elly’s smiling face as she waved from the shaded patio overlooking the grounds. “Did you bring the apples?” Elly’s smile lasted for only a few more seconds before she noticed that, no, Yuuka did not have any apples on her. She had forgotten in the excitement of seeing the golden lace and everything that had followed. Would Elly accept the excuse that the terrible, horrible, violent and cruel Shrine Maiden had forced her to leave? No, probably not. “Oh, Lady Yuuka! I’ve been asking for weeks!” Her gatekeeper cried in frustration. “I’ll never get to make my perfect drink at this rate!” The girl buried her face in her hands, and at that point, Yuuka noticed the already-empty glass sitting on the stone railing. It appeared that she’d indulged in some of her own supply.

“She looks like she’s in need of a hug.” Tenshi commented.

“Well, she’s not getting…” Yuuka paused, squinting at Elly closely. “No, perhaps you’re right.” She’d spoken today about showing plants the respect they deserved, so maybe it was time she showed her gatekeeper the respect she deserved. “Do excuse me for one moment.” Yuuka said to Tenshi, who nodded distractedly as she looked around at the mansion, keeping hold of the golden lace plant in her good arm. Then, she headed for the steps leading up to Mugenkan’s patio area, where Elly was watching her approach and looking a little bit crestfallen. Yes, maybe Tenshi was right. Maybe she did deserve a hug, and she definitely deserved an apology.

Yuuka Kazami did not run. She did, however, walk just a little bit faster.
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The mid-winter sun shone clearly, but impotently, providing light but little in the way of warmth to the land below. Snowdrifts dominated the area between the forested hills and the low-lying farmland, accentuating the normally subtle grading of hillocks with blue-and-sliver strips. The paths that lead to the woods, to the mountain, were completely erased by the elements and the only signs of foot traffic were to be found around the village. It was there that snow was shoveled, built into banks on the sides of the street, in order to give the illusion that life proceeded at its usual pace.

That the canal was often frozen, the inhabitants on either bank bereft of fuel to burn in their stoves, never seemed to matter much, nor did the scant harvest that was to be found in the over-exploited woods thereabouts—the small faggots that could be gathered after a long day’s work scrounging and bending around in knee-deep snow were of import only to a precarious few. Those without stockpiles—or money—were the few marginalized and their discomfort was the fault of their lack of industry during the rest of the year besides. As these areas paid only the most perfunctory level of tax, the village elders had little reason to concern themselves with the well-being of the undeserving residents of the area. The liberty that came from a lack of expectations meant that each wretch attempted to survive in the way they thought best.

That dreg of a man, out of work and embittered by the indifference of life to the best of intentions, had been sitting pretty in the bar every a few days for the past few weeks. There he spent his few coins miserly, at the minimum level needed to avoid curt treatment by the staff, reveling more in the heat of the cozy bar than in the comfort of the cheap drink. He initially kept to himself in a corner, watching the regulars come in, converse among themselves, and interact cheerily with the young girl behind the bar; quick to smile, ever-ready to take an order, the aproned waitress kept order and made the drinks keep on flowing. Recognition appeared in the girl’s green eyes whenever he came in but, thankfully, so did discretion, and she seemed content to accept his occasional order of house sake throughout the course of the day.

Fortune also favored the man as the regulars were garrulous and so bored by their routine that they would strike up conversation with whomever might be present at the bar. At times, this meant that a young bespectacled woman might be the target of some grandfatherly platitudes or that a queer drink would be shared with an eccentric young lady with a penchant for black. Most of the time, however, it meant that the elders, one gray and thin and the other mostly-bald and ruddy-faced would turn their attention to the outcast; they would talk about their working lives and how things had been in their youth, intermixing household gossip and idle rumors regarding the village. Truthfully, little of that was to interest to him, but he happily listened and offered perfunctory assertions whenever prompted—it was more important that he was included in the round of drinks ordered and that he was able to gorge himself in complementary pickled snacks before last call came about. Money that would have lasted only a week or two somehow became enough for a month, perhaps more.

In truth, that leech of a man would have rather spent his time at a brothel, blanketed, however fleetingly, by the radiated heat from exposed flesh, or gotten out of arrears and settled the rent of his room—always bitterly cold and exposed to water’s frigid dampness—and pacified his aged and widowed landlady. Work was scarce outside of the planting and harvest season for the unskilled; his role as an entertainer was long-since forgotten, his instrument pawned a year prior as he was unable to demonstrate enough mastery to attract pupils with any regularity. All he lived for was the relative comfort of the moment, for the bedding that would welcome him in the night but perhaps not the day after. The man was willingly sunken in nameless thoughts, deep but also fleeting, unable to rise beyond their weighty pull nor able to bubble forth the slightest hint of their substance to others.

His more complete ruination—as was to be expected—came from the gambling hall. The presence of the smiling madame tore him from his terrible solitude, the normally thickened roots that were mired in the muck of life were pulled gently and exposed as weakened tendrils to witheringly cold air. The sensitivity that came from exposure, crisp and revelatory, gave him a unusual thrill; the tension that carried through the day, through the sessions, obscured his poverty and made the future seem ever-distant and unimportant. Though he had to pace himself—out of the strictest necessity—he nonetheless embraced the development enthusiastically and plunged into total decadence, as men of poor judgment and even lesser skill are wont to do.

The committed wastrel started casually: an unfortuitous early arrival had seen him realize that the bar operated as a gambling den early during certain days and, finding his older drinking companions busy at games of chance, he joined them cautiously. He lost more than he won but the attrition was sufficient to grant him a taste for gaming. The waitress took orders as she usually did but it was the presence of the serene overseer, a woman with dark eyes that calmly watched over every bet placed and hand played, that transformed the atmosphere; she smoked deliberately from a kiseru without expression, her thoughts and passions shrewdly concealed as the acrid and anesthetizing smoke languidly drifted and filled the room; the woman stared but offered no comment, solving flare-ups of emotion and disputes with but a word or two, steadily-banking and taking the house’s cut from the winnings at the end of a session.

On the days the gambling hall operated, different faces crowded around the tables and counter of the bar. Cursory flirtation—directed at both smiling waitress and the unflappable mistress of numbers—tended to occur early in the day, before losses multiplied and faces became sullen. The hanger-on watched and participated as best he could, subsuming his solitude in babble and the slow-bleeding of scarce specie. The sensations he felt at the time, the promises of winning that never quite manifested in actuality, were akin to danger and as intoxicating as murder, leaving him numb and tremulous as they dissipated over the course of the day; they withdrew and left him empty; all he longed for was to recover their vitality and to keep his suffocating irrelevance at bay for a moment longer. The weeks of existence that had looked certain thanks to luck and economy soon became stultifying hope, banished with the throw of dice.

Loss and sure calamity did not phase the ever-smoking woman, as she was well-practiced in the art of feigned empathy whenever particularly large loss was registered; her sweet condolences, offered with a the most austere of smiles, serious and respectful, and expressed with throaty tangibility pacified even the stormiest spirits; a puff from the kiseru twinned with a gesture that exposed dainty wrists and elegantly long forearm from beneath fine fabric drew the eye and disabled the thinking mind. The ruined would come close to thanking her for their loss, their focus turning to the seemingly-effortless manner that she would turn her head as if to follow her own enticingly private thoughts or to fix a wayfaring strand of light-colored hair that happened to find its way across from the otherwise orderly gathered clump that flowed from a royal yellow bow at the back of her head down below her shoulders. The soothing femininity that could be found in the curling of her subtly-painted fleshy lips, alight with discreet vivacity that contrasted with blanched skin, displaced soreness and unwittingly later victimized the women in domestic roles who were bereft of comparable charm

The serving girl, by contrast, presented a more accessible, a more expected, figure. She catered to the customers eagerly, quick to suggest playfully an order of finger foods or a drink to the dedicated host who were more conscious of the reveal of a tile or the shaking of dice than they were to their own lingering humanity. The older men spoke to the cheery girl more, an air of jocular familiarity persisting in spite of the charged early-day environment. In those hours the girl saw to her business without rest, only stopping momentarily to adjust her whale-adorned apron or her similarly-shaped hat whenever either loosened under the strain of sustained movement. Quiet disapproval followed a rejection of the services she plied, the twitch subtle in her otherwise wide eyes, as she tolerated the faithful few who dedicated themselves to wholesale loss and disaster.

The ruddy-faced man, as impatient and given to talk like his grey-haired companion, made an effort to engage with the captivated soul. Talk, of the sort favored on previous days of simple drinking, was proffered, and the usual jibes and observations were attempted in their tired template, with only monosyllabic acknowledgements and grunts as a response. Whenever reason—that fleeting sentiment that cooled the compulsiveness that burned away restraint—did assert itself after a few losses, the condemned man managed to speak as he had before, and engage in mollifying discourse that kept his money away from the woman’s slender fingers and, ultimately, her iron lockbox. Without the amiable intervention of the pair, anyone might have been rapidly lost in the conflagration, left with nothing but regret and impotent desire.

Attrition inevitably took its toll and, after a few days, the derelict had nothing to show for his pious engagement but a weightless purse and a contemptuous disregard for the incisive frost of winter that would bite in as soon as he were exposed to the unfiltered season. He nursed his drink even more cautiously than usual, chastised and consigned to simply observe the proceedings of the day. When the pair of regulars appeared, they were as affable as could be but that did little to quell the gnawing gap that grew within. It was with a dull glazed-over expression that he listened to his acquaintances speak, the austere ambivalence of the mistress of chance attracting his attention by default. Present in body, but not in any other capacity, he ate of pickled something with little thought that it would be the last day he would bear the stifling comfort of civilization.

The automaton’s eyes drifted beyond the older men, to the side of the small bar, towards the regally-distant woman. Wan wisps of smoke came from the kiseru; minute clouds emanated from the reddened mouth of the svelte dragon, painting the air of the bar as the mundane landscapes reproduced on scrolls; a difficult-to-place scent, coarse in its overriding of nuance, but light and almost perfumed came as pulsations while the tobacco burned; as rich and stimulating as it may have well been, at no point did the constant emanations saturate nor, more importantly, revolt the senses. The woman occasionally tapped the side of the dragon after a drag with a single finger, casually, like an unconscious action. Though he had never seen her refill the long pipe in the many hours she had overseen the gambling, he imagined that she did so with similar smoothness and skill.

A zephyr-like smile softened the woman’s indifference for a moment, as fleeting as the smoky streaks of cloud, and dissipated into the air. The effect instantly disabused the notion of her as an impassive karakuri, able to only strictly follow a carefully-constructed routine. Or, perhaps, the man found himself thinking absently, his tether to reality slack, it simply showed the sophistication of her design.

The observer felt aware of himself once more. His companion to the right had gone, perhaps to relieve himself as his cup remained half-full. In his seat was the smallest of things, a smattering of coins. He had dropped them—surely—and not noticed. Neither had his companion who had turned away and was talking animatedly to another patron the next stool over. The waitress had gone into the kitchen and the smoking woman was once more inert and no one else could possibly see the recessed money, so carelessly abandoned.

Each coin was so light a thing, lacking individual feeling and presence. In the thief’s hand they took on unreal weight—a day more of perdition, of distraction from the chill. They were soon hidden within the folds of the much-patched and discolored clothes.

As was to be expected, when the elder man returned, he did not notice his loss. He sat and finished his drink, trading in previous—and also, unknowingly, recent—generosity by wagging his tongue at the man, rolling up bar talk and spinning in half-finished strands of conversation into a genial tapestry of no real deliberate design. As time passed, nothing seemed to be any different than it had been an hour, days, before.

Even in the mind of the purloiner his action had made only the most fleeting of impressions. He had wanted to leave, to avoid temptation and stretch out his non-existence into another day. But the thought of the frost and a less-dulled mind and that kept him seated. It was easier to waft and dissolve into the background with the men around him, as with the delicate stream of smoke that was ceaselessly produced.

“Will you play?” the woman asked him, having moved from her spot to the his side at the bar. It was the first time she had spoken directly to him and her tone was direct, if not to say gruff. Perhaps she did not think him worth the effort for charming artifice and affectation. A tap on her pipe, still burning, caused the smoke to swirl between them, making the man aware of little else but astringent ash. She spoke more, though she did not seem to be addressing the man in particular, “Things will stop for the day soon. There’s time for a few hands before the end.”

The woman produced a cup and a pair of dice and set it on the edge of the bar counter. The stupefied man stared. The men next to him noticed the action, keeping an eye on the development, but continuing their senseless conversation in the meanwhile.

“I trust I don’t need to explain?” the woman asked, accepting the proceeds of the crime as well as what he had brought to pay his bill for the day. The hapless man had handed it all without thinking, not at all worrying about the potential consequences of being unable to pay the already-suspicious waitress. He had been always been acutely aware that the end could only be deferred.

The woman made a show of the ordeal, removing her jacket and even baring her shoulder. And more flesh besides. A comment was made that it was good fortune to be attended by the madame herself, but it failed to register with the lascivious levity that was intended in the mind of the dazed man. The man’s own actions, the woman’s ritualized ordeal, felt diffused, distant, and made him dispassionate. The only people invested in the display were the few stragglers and the two regulars, who watched and waited.

It took only an instant to roll the dice. Another instant, another roll. Openly, in the bowl, the result was read. Another roll followed. More instants. Murmuring from the spectators. Yet another roll. Cheers from the spectators. An avuncular pat on the back from the man sat next to him. To the fortunate man each of those occurrences seemed as a thin thread of smoke, each as intangible as a recalled memory. A cool sensation spread in his gut, the only sensation he felt genuine.

The woman stopped—a pleasant, ambiguous, smile on her face. She would go for the day but only when the winner had had enough. He had and she did not protest, taking another long draw from her pipe, once more of another world. She was a clear outline, with bright eyes that held no judgment in them, emerging from the persistent muddle of his mind. Whether she directed more words at him, protruding lips moving and revealing cold corals underneath, or whether he had said something after the games remained unclear. She withdrew, taking the house’s commission and squaring up with the waitress, leaving the establishment with almost incorporeal grace.

The gambler remained still for a while. His winnings sat before him, uncollected. A melt occurred within, following not much else but breathing. Cognizant of the feeling of metal on his fingertips, he called out to the waitress. He settled his bill but not before ordering a drink for his companions; neither kindness nor guilt drove his actions, but the same unbelieving flow that had moved his shell earlier compelled him to make the gesture. Shared, his fortune became palatable to the earlier losers, and they did not resent him overtly, their bellies filled with the florid warmth of middling sake. Roots, replanted; chill, displaced.

The convicted man did not question the reprieve. He paid his landlady, for all the good that ultimately meant, and reclaimed a long-pawned kakebuton. Sleep was once again regular in the small room and not even the frigid early-morning mist from the partially-frozen canal failed to make much of an impression. Already tired, with a weariness that seemed to originate in his marrow, the man allowed himself to simply exist in that room for a few days. There was no need to debase himself as a mendicant for a time, to embarrass the humanity around him with his presence. In the widow's good graces once more, he ate root vegetable stew at regular intervals. More than enough for a man otherwise jailed.

A yearning—inertial, undefinable—moved him a few days later. He had no need to scrounge nor to socialize but he returned to the bar nonetheless. Gambling den that it was in the earlier hours, it was more patronized than in the weeks before. A few of the tables were being used for games of chance and there was a livelier atmosphere to the place; the waitress was content with the increased workload, smiling broadly as she delivered snacks and drinks to the playing fools. And off to the side, the woman was at her place, imperious in her detachment, smoke rising from the lit kiseru. The fragrance of the tobacco was viscerally familiar, causing him to unconsciously breathe deep; hints of plum, of a spring still distant, were new.

The compelled man found his erstwhile pair of companions sitting at the bar, merrily engaging in the same nothings they usually did. The bald man, the one whose coins he had stolen, was the first to notice his arrival and heartily called him over. The hapless man had begun to drink of the atmosphere, to become helplessly dispersed and joined the pair out of lack of a conflicting desire. There he spoke, drank, and even ate, careful as before to only exist and not waste what remained of his small hoard. He was told that the gambling den’s business had picked up after the man’s win the other day, as the far-fetched odds that had favored his unlikely string of wins had convinced other idle hands to turn themselves over to fortune.

There was no show of gratification on the woman’s face at the development. From time to time, one of the gamblers would say something to her, usually something ultimately crass, veiled as it might be behind inveiglement for luck or favor from the madame. As expected from someone in her role, she would banter and answer, occasionally getting up to patrol the tables or briefly observe at the request of a patron; a talisman for the desperate or an idol for a winner—either way an object. She did not betray discomfort with being an accessory and listened to stories as the dice rolled. From time to time, she made her own sharp, but tolerated-if-not-expected, comments. It was then that she allowed herself to grin slightly, her eyes focusing on the temporary solidity of the floating world that surrounded them all. That ugly beauty, intrusive and forthright, went unobserved by those deeply lost in the haze. Or rather, the man felt as he watched her over the course of hours, that truth was only evident to those who willingly became a mere puff of smoke.

When the gambling hall was to close for the day, the woman approached the enslaved man again. The question was the same; the tone flat and polite and, with earlier thoughts still knocking about, he believed mocking. The dragon’s emissions were perfumed to deadly, stupefying effect and he bet as he had before. Her arm bare, dice rolled. Even as he lost once, twice, he ultimately won when it was important. The hoard became larger, the congratulations strident and jealous. When asked, he told the woman that he was done and, with a nod, she withdrew.

The persistent winner treated the older men to drinks before leaving, feeling the weight of stares from the restive gamblers. The waitress happily bid him to return soon—no longer merely tolerated, he was seen as good for business. Just as quickly, he knew, he could be declared unwelcome.

His winnings were of no real consequence and only served to enrich the root stew with more vegetables and to recover a pawned coat. Both provided only transitory comfort. For some time he deliberated whether or not to recover his instrument at the pawnshop. The elderly shopkeep, made callous by decades of exposure to misery, barely tolerated his continued presence as he looked at what was set beyond the counter. In music there had once been happiness, once been a way of life—an obligation, acknowledged as of late only with imprecations. No one delighted in the intangible things he had to share. Opprobrium followed most attempts to force the issue.

He instead paid the next month’s rent in advance, wishing to rid himself of too much wealth in a practical manner. Spent elsewhere, money could buy him access but never acceptance; even if he were to win a hundred more times, the man knew that he would remain consigned to the quiet, forgotten area by the canal; respect and consideration, of the genuine kind, came only through breeding or the industry of an established trade. All he could aspire to was to survive each moment, to hope that at times he would feel less of a stranger to himself.

Drifting, with little coherence, the man returned to the bar from time to time. Business had picked up and many expected him to gamble but he seldom did; only when prompted by the remote woman, enticed by the stink of ash, flowers, and whatever else, did he gamble; he spent a month winning and losing, coming up ahead for the most part. Win or lose, he paid for drinks and ate and drank as much as he usually did. Insentient indolence kept him from doing anything beyond the established routine. As a mere spectator he kept track of the aloof woman and her gestures, watching her consume the last of her tobacco, watching her calmly collect and pay out before leaving. It was a routine without novelty, a nascent normalcy. Food was unfeeling fuel and drink distorted any decision he could hope to make.

He confessed his crime in a moment of lucidity, when the madame was walking among the throng of feverish gamblers. The bald man neither absolved nor condemned him, simply asking why it was that he had felt it necessary to tell him the truth. As the man had no reason, he made no reply. Nothing, in effect, had changed and he continued to listen absentmindedly to the two older men chat over drinks and snacks. The dullness of routine, of indefinite deferral, prevented him from accepting his non-existence peacefully. His roots needed to be frosted beyond the point of no-return or, else, a more permanent melt needed to happen, one that would make him thrive in spite of everything else. As the man ordered yet more sake for his companions, he stared at his empty cup.

The imprisoned man made a decision. Imperfect as it might be, it felt like it would be his own. He hoped for liberation—of either body or of spirit—but knew that it was subject to the woman’s whim. When she came around once more, returning to her immobile and immaculate state at the periphery, he made his move. He smiled at her—fatalistic fool that he was—and engendered a genuine response: a susurrous laugh escaped her lips. An understanding grin budded on her face and her gaze castigated, granting his nebulous form substance. His initiative instigated more than just a flight of fancy—as she tapped the side of her kiseru, the woman acknowledged his request. It was with all due ceremony, and performative polish, that she once more assembled the elements of fate before him.

The crowd of regulars, habituated to the exchange, quieted down. Some, finishing up their games, came and stood around the man, as if hoping that his preternatural luck would come to infuse them as well. They could not know, much less care, that it would be the last time that they would see the exchange unfold before them. The man placed every bit of money he had on him before the woman, his hand steady and his intent clear. The woman put down her pipe and deftly damped down on the red embers with fingers moistened by an ashen glob of saliva until it extinguished. The smell of nothing-in-particular, of a sour breath caused by pickled food and drink, contributed to the state of curious clarity he had constructed.

“Shall we begin?” she asked, her voice directed at the essence of the man for the first time.

“Let us,” the liberated man answered, his voice no longer uncertain.

The dice rolled for a moment but soon came to a rest.
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“I have not an idea, miss.” Her fluffy ears swirl, reacting to the dense cigar of the air. “Though, if I were to guess, they probably keep all that money somewhere up there, in one of the rooms of Eientei. I mean, that would make sense, since it’s much safer, I think.”

The blonde nods, humming to the reply. “I can see that.”

“What I do know is the fact that there’s a treasure room for the medicines used for the games here, where all the rare, Eientei-brand, drugs are kept. It’s there in the right wing.” She points to a room in the corner, where a giant rabbit could be seen guarding its surroundings. A lighter accompanies him as he tries to light his smoker.

Biten stares at the pointing finger of the innocent Inaba, pondering how flawlessly their plan has been executed up until this point. It is surprising to think about, because the spark that first initiated this is not one of her successes in her discoveries of Gensokyo's surface. It is simply a mistake, her mistake, where the Sarugami has accidentally found—in one of her expeditions—where all the earth Inaba is lazing out while the business of Eientei isn’t running. She followed one of the poor rabbits into their nest, located somewhere behind Eientei, and found a hidden, underground area where all the enthusiasm of the working Inaba had been gathered. It is a gambling den, to say it simply. The ruckus of rabbits jumping all over the place has almost compelled her to trace her step back and give a half-assed report to the Kiketsu Family. Alcohol, smokes, and gambles all have been compiled in this one, dirty, messy slump.

She braved herself at that time, proving it to be a one-way road as anyone who entered the place would be trapped in its filthy charm. The earth rabbits greets her into a gamble, a game of poker with no minimum requirement fee to play. Biten would have refused their offer had the sight of stacked money—worth two million yen—not been present at that time, and she has found herself in a condition of no risk at hand, with high rewards at her disposal.

There is, in fact, a risk in that gamble, and soon the monkey youkai found herself in debt of two million yen instead.

She has been kicked out of the place, urged to bring the money due tomorrow with the threat that the earth rabbits would trace her location had she not paid them in time. That is when—upon making her way to the Animal Realm in empty hands—she encountered the all-scheming leader of the Kiketsu Family.

“You looked rather pale.” The monkey turns her head at the corner of the pavement, right before entering the road of reconsideration. Her voice is all-familiar to her.

“H-How—Why are you—” She cries out her name, only to be shut immediately.

“I advise you to not use our names here. We’re not in a safe territory.” She whispers. Her black cloak covers her face as she hands the monkey girl a black cloak of her own. “Let’s move to a more private area.”

“Oh, I’m in big trouble!” She tells her a short recap of what had just transpired. The Jidiao carefully listens to her story, occasionally nodding as the echoes from the pedestrians fill the area. With her nerves ringing, she can’t help but expect to be punished right there for her mistake.

“A gambling den… Exclusively for the earth rabbits? I’ve never heard that.” The blonde unexpectedly places her hand on the Sarugami’s head, petting her. “You’ve had a great find, Oh the Great Sage equal to Heaven.”

She is startled by her response. Though, she has no objection to this whatsoever. “W-What are we going to do about it, then? Those inaba have their eyes on everywhere! We can’t just ignore them!”

The blonde puts a hand over her chin, thinking briefly before answering. “We’ll pay them…” She points to the sky, shutting one of her eyes. Her smile is full of confidence. “Not with our money, of course.”

And here they are, executing their plan to infiltrate the dangerous hideout of the earth inaba. They have smoothly bypassed the entry guards; the Jidiao straying them away with only one or two words from her silver tongue. Now, they only need to pry the information they need from one of the players here, with the current Inaba being chosen as their victim.

“So, uh, I think that’s pretty much it…” The naive rabbit sticks her index fingers together, looking to the ground. “I-I think I’ve done my part of the deal…”

The Jidiao stares the rabbit in the eyes, her blonde hair hiding one of hers. “Hmm, very well.” She hands the rabbit a pack of cigarettes; a premium edition exclusive from the Animal Realm. “I don’t have a lighter, though. Perhaps you can borrow it from someone else.”

“T-Thank you, Miss!” The rabbit beams, grabbing her reward as she jumps in eager feet. Biten stares at the excited Inaba, crossing in high enthusiasm as she makes her way to the right wing of the area.

“You know, we don’t actually need to give her that, right? It’s not like she can do anything about it…” Her brown hair shuffles as she tilts her head, thinking about how much of a waste to let them get one of those premium packs. It is one of her favorites.

“Integrity is everything. No matter how educated you believe you are, how you treat people ultimately tells all.” The Jidiao titters, her crimson eyes telling the Sarugami that she has something in her mind. “After all, it is a small price to pay so we could proceed further.”

Her cryptic sentence confuses the monkey youkai. She does not get the chance to try to question it, however, as a commotion in the right wing has shifted her attention.

“I told you to lend me the goddamn lighter, damn it!” The previous Inaba scoffs, fighting the guard rabbit from the treasure room that she mentioned.

“What are you going to do with it?” The guard fights back. “I can’t just let you take my lighter away.”

Biten wants to get a better look at the situation as other earth rabbits gather around the area, but as she makes her effort, her hand is led away to the corner by the Jidiao. The Inaba… The cigarettes… The guard’s lighter… Her pupils shrink as the monkey youkai connects the dots. “W-Wait, don’t tell me you knew that they were going to—”

The rest of her words are stuck in her mouth as the blonde responds with a simple grin.

Non ducor, duco.

Rows of metal boxes greet their sight as the duo enters the treasure room. Shelves full of tubes and beakers are stacked upon each other as a white bulb illuminates the space, the light reflecting from the iron covering of the chemicals. One of the upper shelves is filled with tobacco and the likes; pipes, lighters, and cigars collected in one container. The Jidiao's golden horns shine brightly as the leader of the Kiketsu Family inspects the lower row of the shelves.

‘’So…” The Sarugami puts a hand behind her neck. “What is our plan here, exactly?”

The blonde pulls a handle from one of the racks, revealing rows of smaller rectangular boxes in the container. The Jidiao picks one of the small boxes, metal in its outer layer with a button as its lock. It uses a sticky note as its label, with the word ‘Epinephrine’ scribbled on it. “Simple, we'll bring these chemicals back to our place and sell them in the Animal Realm. We’d have no competition in the drug industry.” She opens the box, revealing rows of tiny flasks neatly arranged in a grid consisting of two rows and four columns, eight flasks in total.

“Do you bring any markers here?” The blonde asks.

“Markers, as in, color markers?” Her long tail wanders as it searches around the area, bringing back a grabful of color markers from one of the containers. “Why would you need this anyway?”

“Nothing particular.” She picks one with a darker blue color from the bunch. Opening the cap, she turns her back around and continues her errand. Biten has already adjusted to her behavior, oftentimes the Jidiao would do unnecessary things without ever explaining anything about it, and every time she tries to question, her leader would explain it in a roundabout way that left her more confused than ever.

The monkey youkai takes a look at her back, observing the door behind her. “We should leave this room before those two are done fighting, we can't be spotted here—”

The door creaks.

Biten picks her elongated tube in an instant as the foot of what she assumes is an earth Inaba comes out from the door. A pair of white, fluffy ears further confirms her quick assumption. Without even realizing it, the monkey youkai instinctively jumps to the ceiling and hides herself.

The frills of the rabbit's pink dress brush over the ground. Her black shoulder-length hair prevents Biten from taking a clear look at the intruder's face. Yet somehow, she could feel something from her aura alone, as if her body would shiver from the danger. Why does she feel scared? It's not like a mere Inaba could stand a chance against a sage like her. Biten stares at the ground, feeling grateful that her leader has cleverly concealed herself behind the stack of shelves.

The Inaba's footsteps echo through the room. She looks around the shelves, putting a hand on her chin. “Hmm, they must be around here, hiding somewhere…”

S-She found out already? How can she figure it out so fast? Biten's grip falters as her sweat makes it difficult to grab the framework of the ceiling. She solely directs her focus to staying up, inhaling some good, deep breaths, and—

A fly gets sucked into her mouth.

Her throat contracts as her body instinctively rejects the foreign object. Coughing excessively, Biten’s hand has forgotten its original purpose, letting go of the ceiling and ultimately sending the monkey youkai into the ground. The loud thud from the resulting fall reverberates through the shelves, pulling some of the potions out and making them fall from their position. One of the flasks falls directly into the rabbit’s hand.

“Ha! Found it!” The inaba cheers, holding the potion in her hand above the air. “The chemical I’m searching for, what a coincidence!” She puts it into her pocket, turning her back to the door.

“Wait a damn second!” In haste, the monkey girl grabs her pole and extends it to hit the Inaba. Her attack gets interrupted, however, as a box of chemicals falls in front of the Inaba, right in time to block the incoming pole. The pole crashes at the box, transferring its momentum and flinging the box into the air, bouncing off from the walls and eventually dropping its content back to the Sarugami. Confused, the monkey has no time to process what has happened, blindly assuming that the Inaba has countered her.

Paying no attention whatsoever, the earth rabbit continues her exit—a futile attempt—as another object stops her; a green-scaled tail wrapping around the door’s handle.

The Jidiao extends her appendage at the entrance, preventing the Inaba from escaping the room. The black-haired hare turns her head around, rotating her body to have a better look at the tortoise. The two souls do a long stare-down, analyzing each and every detail of their opponent, their dominance clashing against each other. The blonde’s sharp and refined hair hides half of her face while the rabbit proudly shows off her expression.

“Excuse me, miss, I think your tail is blocking my way out.” She beams with her mischievous smile, nonchalantly asking for permission.

“Ah, sorry.” She pulls her tail back, clashing her own forehead with the rabbit’s. “Though, aren’t you supposed to be more… concerned by us? You seem to treat your guests a bit too well.”

The Inaba puts her arms behind, shrugging her head. “That’s not my problem here, when it comes to chasing unwanted guests, it becomes his responsibility.”

The Jidiao’s expression turns into a shock as the exit door opens, revealing a well-suited Inaba, slightly taller than average, with slick white hair and a fine black tuxedo. The tie on his neck is folded neatly, making a well-presented accessory. The gloves in his hands are straightened into the inner side of his palms.

“What brings you here, Butler?” The pink-dressed Inaba asks, leaning her back against the wall.

“Hmm? I can’t figure it out exactly.” The butler plays with his mustache. “Intuition, perhaps? I’ve worked here for quite a long time. Who are these lads, Miss Inaba?”

“Dunno. Intruders. Thieves, maybe? This horned lady blocks my way.”

Biten wakes up from her stupor. Grabbing her pole, she readies herself to launch at her new enemy, but the Jidiao stops her with an arm.

“Halt, we would have no chance.”

The Sarugami is surprised. “What? What are you saying?”

“It’s better to surrender now.” She crosses her arms. “Have you not noticed it?”

The brown-haired girl pays her with a muddled expression. “Huh???”

“Look at his gloves. Straightened inward to his palms, as if they had been ironed. I would rather not lose my head from that killing machine.”

Biten tilts her head even further, her expression becoming that of confusion. The Butler laughs, slowly peeling his hands off his gloves.

“The skin of our palms is covered by keratin, the more frequently we use them, the harder and stronger it becomes.” The Jidiao explains as the gentleman reveals his hand, showing the dark, almost metallic side of his palms. “When someone uses their palms solely for the purpose of slicing things in half. One side of it will become thicker over time due to the unbalanced accumulation of its keratin.”

The butler pulls out a handkerchief and throws it into the air. In a second, his hand slashes through the air at unmatched speed, leaving afterimages of the action. The handkerchief has no chance to touch the ground as it is shredded into tiny bits. “Splendid, Lady. I admire your wit.”

Biten stares at the two Inaba, her hand still gripping her pole. They can’t just give up here, right? There must be a way to fight back!

“This is boring.” The pink-dressed Inaba turns around. “I’m going back, you go handle these two, Butler.”

“I know a better, non-violent way to settle this.”

The fleeting rabbit turns her back, looking at the Jidiao with a wicked smile. “Oho~ Are we perhaps thinking the same thing?”

The tortoise and the hare look at each other with a confirming gaze of their common understanding. The butler brings his hand in front of his chest, bowing down in a royal manner. “Pardon me for being obtuse, do you two consider proposing a gamble?”

The black-haired Inaba looks at him in her peripheral, nodding. “Seems so. I’ll be glad if you were to hold this match for us, Butler.”

“I am honored.” The well-mannered rabbit stands up. “I suggest you two state your name before starting, for it to be an official game I can organize.”

Biten stares at her leader, remembering the urgency to stay anonymous. Have they decided on a nickname before? If they had, then Biten must have forgotten. She tries to rewind her memory and—

“Yachie Kicchou.”

The rest of the room falls silent. The Sarugami furrows her brows as she looks at her leader with her mouth agape.

“Yachie Kicchou? The leader of the Kiketsu Family?” The Butler pulls out a small note from his pocket. “Then, that one must be her new ally, Son Biten, the monkey who owed us two million yen earlier.”

“W-What are you doing, Yachie?” The brown-haired youkai squeaks. “You said that we shouldn’t use our names here!”

The Jidiao snickers. “Indeed. The circumstances have changed.” She points her index to the Inaba. “Judging from your eagerness, I suspect that nobody has stood a chance against you. Hence your boredom.”

“Heh, I’m flattered.” The pink-dressed Inaba puts a hand to hide her sly smile, rolling her eyes sideways. “Well, that IS true~ But that’s only because I’m one of the veterans here. Nothing to do with my eagerness.”

“Then it’s only appropriate to use my real name here, for this will be another great title in my possession.” The blonde puts her hand in her face, covering half of it as her hair swings backward, crimson eyes shining between her fingers. “I, Yachie Kicchou, will be the first person to beat you in a gamble.”

The tubes that have previously fallen roll around the surface of the upper shelves. The Inaba stares at the Jidiao without flinching, flashing a smile full of confidence. “Loved your attitude, hopefully it’d stay like that for the rest of the match.” She puts her arms behind her neck, tilting her head upwards as she yawns. Suddenly, one of the tubes on the upper shelves reaches the tobacco containers, pushing it and spilling its contents to fall. One of the cigarettes lands perfectly into the Inaba’s mouth, neatly tucked into the tip of her oral cavity as she finishes yawning. A following lighter drops from the upper shelves, dropping conveniently into her hand. She lights her cigar without even looking. “Tewi Inaba, looking forward to our game.”

Thus begins the tale between the tortoise and the hare.

The carapace of her shell bounces off the room's light, coming from the wide, round lamp in the center of the room. The bulb itself has a recurring symbol in its glass cover; an aesthetic that represents an endless knot. The gleam of that one bulb is enough to illuminate the rest of the marble-covered room. On the right side, there seems to be some kind of a coffee stand, complete with wooden chairs and counters, various coffee packs laying on the back shelf. A wide screen is hung in the middle part of the walls.

Contrasting with the rest, a giant, mechanical, metal jaw is present at the left side of the room, complete with eleven sets of sharp teeth in both its upper and lower jaws—resembling a shark, with ten other miniature sharks present between each tooth in the lower jaw. Aside from the miniature sharks, a figure of a white rabbit and a man could be seen in each respective corner of the giant jaw. Laying behind the machinery are two huge tubes, one with a symbol similar to that of a sleeping person, the other bearing semblance to that of a skull.

“I should make it clear,” The butler stands in front of the contraption. “In order to prevent any unfair advantages from both parties, I will be the one who decides what game will be played.”

Biten inspects the machine in curiosity, using her long tail to interact with the teeth of the giant shark.

“Kicchou, have you heard of the Tale of The White Hare?” The butler asks.

Her red eyes scans over the machine, gliding along the teeth and analyzing the miniature sharks in-between. “I’ve heard of it. Not worth my attention.”

Tewi clicks her tongue. “Shame, we'd have to explain that to you.”

“Long before Gensokyo,” The butler starts, pointing to the rabbit figure in the corner. “There was a white hare, living on the island of Oki, who wanted to cross the sea. In order to do this, she tricked the sharks of the ocean to a challenge. She proposed to see whose clan is larger, that of the sharks or that of the hares.”

The butler guides his finger along the line of miniature sharks. “The hare had the sharks lie in a row across the sea. Not long after, she hopped across them, ‘counting’ them as she went. However,” He presses one of the sharks in the corner. “Near the end, the hare exclaims that she had used them as a bridge, and the last shark, in its rage, attacked the hare, ripping her fur.” He points to the figure of the man in the opposite corner of the rabbit. “Long story short, the pitiful hare confronted Lord Daikoku on his way to visit Princess Yakami, then the god blessed the hare with a cure.”

Yachie listens to the story, slightly furrowing her brows. “What does that have to do with the game?”

The butler picks on his gray, pointy mustache, closing his eyes. “The goal of the game is to press these miniature sharks, one of them being the trigger. If the trigger is pressed, the mechanical jaw will snap shut and lunge towards whoever pushed the trigger, them being the loser of the round. In the earlier times, there were many rabbits that got abused, making them afraid of any form of injections. This was the origin of this machine, where each participant is strapped to an IV kit, and the loser would be injected with their medicine. A game originally made to ease the injection process of suffering rabbits, or the ones who refused to have their much needed IV shots.” He glides his hand across his tuxedo, straightening the suit. “You could even say that this game is a tribute to the tale. Hence its name, Daikoku's Injection Control Kit.”

“Hey, isn't this just one of those popular kids games, the… What is it called…?” Biten scratches her brown hair. “Crocodile Dentist, that's the name. This is just that on a bigger scale!”

“In simple terms, yes.” The butler rolls his eyes before returning to his duty. “In the game you two will be playing, players who pressed the trigger will be injected with Epinephrine. Those who don't will be injected with Melatonin instead. I hope I've made it clear, any questions?”

Tewi stays relaxed with her arms behind back, while Yachie urges to question. “What about the money? How much will the winner get?”

The well-mannered Inaba puts his hand on his chin, glancing at the lucky rabbit before nodding. “The starting round will start at the prize of twenty-thousand yen. Those who are unable to continue the match, be it mental or physical issues, will be deemed as the loser, and thus they'll have to afford the total wager to the winner. I'm sure it would eventually be enough to pay your debt, Miss Biten.” He scoffs at the Sarugami who was playing with the miniature sharks. Her three-color dress stays still as she straightens her posture. “Pray for your leader to win.”

“G-Got it!”

“So… Let me get this straight, as long as nobody forfeits, the game will continue until one of us falls. As long as the player is injected with either Epinephrine or Melatonin, the player who remains will be the winner.” The Jidiao crosses her arms, her light blue shirt shuffles.

“You got it, Lady Kicchou. Should we start the game?”

“Okay, but under one condition.” Her turquoise skirt flutters. “I need to know the mechanism behind the machine and the chemicals. It's only fair, right? Since I'm the one who doesn't know anything about it.”

Tewi rolls her eyes sideways. “I won't cheat, alright. That's all ya need to know.”

“She’s right. It's only fair.” He shows her two small identical metal boxes, one with ‘Epinephrine’ in its label and the other written with ‘Melatonin’. “There are eight flasks in each of these boxes, each flask equals to around one milligram of content. The Epinephrine box will be inserted into the slot in the tube with the skull symbol. Melatonin vice versa. I deduce that your worry might come from what the chemicals would do to your body.”

He picks one of the small flasks from the box, showing its dark brown color.

“I can assure you that both these chemicals aren't dangerous in a way. Epinephrine is a hormone that one usually gets when they are faced with danger. It serves as the precursor to the fight-and-flight response.” An image of a menacing bear pops up in Biten's mind as the butler dictates. “Melatonin, on the other hand, is a hormone one produces during the night, usually when sleeping in a dark setting. As opposed to Epinephrine, Melatonin activates the rest-and-digest response.”

The Jidiao listens closely, a hand over her head as she focuses. “I think I get the general idea.” Putting down her arm, she stares the lucky rabbit in the eyes. “We can start the game.” The Inaba pays her back with a smug grin.

“Marvelous.” The butler guides the two to the machine. “In order to maintain fairness, I'd like it for all participants to do a prologue round to decide which side will get the first turn. There are currently ten sharks on the machine. Lady Kicchou and Tewi will both have equal chances to press five sharks in their turns. After a shark is triggered, the shark will be discarded for the next rounds.”

The scales of her tail rattles as she approaches the giant metal jaw, its teeth shining, ready to lunge as if it would cut the hands of whoever gets close to it. She scans each of the miniature sharks thoroughly, looking for any quirks that may identify them as the trigger. The rust… The metal cover… The springy tail… She hovers her arm at one of the sharks in the corner and…


“One shark is pressed, nine remaining.” The butler announces. “It is Miss Tewi's turn.”

The Jidiao scans the Inaba's movement, searching for—


“Another shark is pressed, eight remaining.”

Yachie is startled, her eyes not having the chance to read her opponent.

“What? No matter how long you think of your steps, in the end, only luck can decide your fate.” Her pink dress swings as Tewi motions her hand. “There's no need to waste your time here, Jidiao.”

Yachie holds her stance, raising her chin. “I do things my own way.”

As the Jidiao guides her arm to one of the sharks in the corner, she takes her chance and makes a deeper look to the insides of the machine. Metal wheels line up in the back of the metal cavity. She could see the back side of the two huge tubes containing the chemicals they'd be using, with some kind of small plastic channels breaching out of the containers.


“Another blank, sev—”

The butler doesn't get to finish his sentence as the machine snaps its jaws, holding Tewi's hand in its grip. It looks like it would cut the hand, but there's actually a small gap in-between the teeth that is big enough for a hand to fit in, small enough for it to not move. Tewi grunts dismissively at this.

“Seems like that Jidiao will get the first turn.” She shrugs with her other hand, mouth curling to a smile. “How unlucky.”

“Then I think we are ready.” The butler stutters from the shock, returning his composure. “The next round will have Yachie Kicchou as its first turn, with the following rounds switching accordingly.” The butler pulls out a remote and points it to the machine. The machinery moves, lifting its jaw and releasing its grip in Tewi's hand. “I'll prepare the IV kit, in the meantime, you two could think of strategies to beat the game.”

Yachie returns her back, approaching the Sarugami who is sitting in the coffee stand. “Do you see anything, Biten? Do you think that rabbit has an ability other than her luck? I'd rather not found out that she secretly has two bodies.”

“No, I don't think so.” Biten would have laughed at the last remark if her life wasn't currently dependent on her success. “But it feels… strange, isn't it? As if she doesn't care at all!”

Yachie looks at her back, using the corner of her eyes to peek at the Inaba, maybe she could read her strategy.

To her surprise, the Inaba isn't doing anything, using her balance and leaning the chair she is sitting on against the stand's counter, mindlessly closing her eyes with a grin on her face.
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She extends her hand to the butler, strapping it to a metal device wrapping around her forearm. His gloves grazes her skin as the Jidiao rests her head upon the wooden counter, peeping her rival with her peripheral, the inaba herself has completed the preparations before her. After making sure that the device is safely locked, the butler shows her an injection needle, its tubing branches from the inside of the mechanical jaws.

“The chemicals will be injected directly to your veins, more specifically, your median antebrachial vein.” The butler says as he wipes her forearm with an alcohol swab, aiming the needle into it. “You’re not unfamiliar with needles, aren't you?”

“Seldom, I have no issue with it.” She points to the strapping device. “What are these cuffs for?”

He picks the double-sided tubing into her attention. “Aside from holding the IV tight, it serves as the switch mechanism, a valve between the tubing that decides which chemical will go through the needle.”

The butler presses the cannula into the device's plug, pushing its needle and locking it in place. Yachie feels a brief pain as she watches the elastic small pipes being connected to her body. Now, both Yachie and Tewi are locked into the machine. The wide screen in the middle walls activates, displaying the following statistics:


Current wager: 20.000 yen, 1 mg

Yachie: 120/80
Epi: 0 mg
Mel: 0 mg

Tewi: 120/80
Epi: 0 mg
Mel: 0 mg


Her red eyes glimmer as she takes a look at the screen. She returns her body forwards, facing the mechanical jaws.

“Since one shark has been triggered, the first round starts with nine sharks. Yachie Kicchou will take the first turn.” The butler bows, gesturing towards the machine. Biten sits at one of the chairs in the coffee stand, trying her best to analyze the current situation. Yachie is at an advantage, she thinks in her mind. Since for every turn the sharks will be eliminated one by one, the chances to hit the trigger will increase in each turn. By having the first turn, Yachie's chance to hit the trigger is one out of nine, the smallest chances available. Tewi, however, will start at a slightly bigger number, which is one out of eight. Clearly, Yachie is at an advantage here.

The Jidiao presses one of the sharks in the corner, and the machine stays still.

“One shark is pressed, eight sharks remain.”

The pink-dressed Inaba hovers her arm to the line of sharks, spending some time to choose. She cups her chin as she tells the Jidiao. “I've been meaning to ask, Yachie.” She turns her face to her. “Do you believe in the concept of luck?”

The blonde stares at her, thinking briefly before answering. “I don't think a concept as absurd should even exist. Luck is merely an excuse humans made to either belittle an achievement they have, or justify the misfortune they cast upon themselves.” She looks up to the ceiling. “It's a concept that disgraces one's plan and efforts.”

“Hmm, is that so?” The Inaba presses one of the sharks, and the machine stays.

“Two sharks are pressed, seven remain.”

“By the way, this one is a safe one.” The Inaba points to one of the sharks, showing it to Yachie. “You should absolutely press this in your next turn.”

Biten startles, her throat choking on air when the words reach her ears. Does she hear that correctly? Does she just guide Yachie to press one of the sharks?

“What?” The Jidiao questions. “What are you saying.”

“You heard me alright.” She points to the shark, punctuating her previous statement. “I'm saying that this shark is definitely not the trigger. Other sharks might be, but I know with my intuition that this one isn't.”

Yachie narrows her lip, looking at her opponent with a condescending eye. Pitiful, she says it in her mind, this kind of bluff won’t fool even a newborn. This is purely a mockery to her intellectual and strategic mind. A metaphorical spit right into her face. She would have strangled her with her tail had the butler not been present. The Jidiao hovers her arm towards another shark from the opposing side, and the machine stays still.

“Three sharks, six remains.”

Yachie turns her back against the machine and—


The wicked face of the Inaba takes Yachie by surprise, forcing her to pull her body back. Tewi twists her lips diabolically, pushing its corner up near the eyes. A dark shadow fills her widened pupils as her rabbit ears point upwards. “You are a liar.”

Yachie bites her tongue, not making sense of her sentence.

“Tsk. Tsk.” She shakes her head, waving her index finger at her. “You claim to not believe in luck. And yet, despite all that talk, you prefer to bet your chances.” She crosses her arms, tilting her head to the left. “Even after I told you where the safe spot is, you chose to ignore it and leave it to the odds. You rather rely on your luck than to trust my guidance.” She closes her face to Yachie's, a black shade covering half of her facial expressions, making it look terrifying. “You. Are. A hypocrite.”

The monkey youkai leans in from her chair, trying to assess their confrontation. Yachie calms herself down, giving her best effort to not break a sweat. The Inaba's smile is indeed enough to tick some parts of her, but the Jidiao has more than enough experience not to fall into her provocation. This is one of the many examples of a False Dichotomy, a logical fallacy where a statement incorrectly claims a situation is ‘wrong’, despite it having other valid possibilities. It presents two choices when more than two choices exist. In this case, Tewi claims that Yachie is contradicting herself, but in reality, there are other factors that led the Jidiao to her conclusion. The Inaba could’ve known where the trigger is, trying to trick her opponent into pressing it. It’s logical for the Inaba to lie about it. Furthermore, if she is indeed saying the truth, what benefit would she get from telling it out loud?


Her thoughts are interrupted as the Jidiao hears the Inaba pressing another shark, the machine staying still.

“Four sharks pressed, five remains.” The butler clarifies. “It is Yachie's turn.”

There are already five sharks left? Biten directs all of her mental capacity to think. Yachie's next turn will have a twenty percent chance to hit the trigger!

“To be frank, I don't expect you to believe my words either.” Tewi says, her eyes giving a sense of mischief. “The choice is up to you, after all.” She points to the shark she has mentioned before, repeating her message. “This one is not the trigger, that's all I want to say.”

Biten thinks this through. There are only two possible cases here, one where the Inaba lies, and another where she is telling the truth. If what she says is true, all it would do is give her opponent an advantage. Therefore, it is correct to say that she must be lying. Unless, that was her intention from the beginning? To make her opponent doubt herself? Is she using some kind of reverse psychology here?

But, if Tewi is lying, and her opponent ends up pressing the trigger, doesn't that imply that the Inaba knows where the trigger is beforehand? That would mean that she is cheating! If Yachie ends up triggering the machine, she could just tell the butler about it, then Tewi can be disqualified for cheating the game! Yes, that could work. That could definitely work. The Sarugami's eyes wonders before she pulls herself together once more, looking at her leader who is about to press another shark, the one where Tewi has guided her before. The Jidiao chooses to believe the Inaba!

Yachie's fingers press at the metal covering of the miniature shark, pushing it down and—


Her heart skips a beat at the sudden clash of metal, looking at the sharp vicious teeth as if they would chomp her hand off. The grip on her hand prevents the Jidiao from pulling away as she could feel the machine interacting with the device in her forearm.


“The first round concludes.” The butler announces, waving his hand in front of his sternum. “One milligram of epinephrine will be directed into Yachie Kicchou, as one milligram of melatonin will be directed into Tewi Inaba. I advise you not to move your arms during the process.”

The Jidiao takes a look at the contraption in front of her, trapping half of her upper extremity in the locked jaws. She can feel her veins narrow as the chemicals are directly injected into her blood vessels.

“E-EXCUSE ME!” The monkey girl yells, pointing fingers towards the butler. “Y-You see that, right? That damned Inaba just forced Yachie to push the trigger!”

“Indeed.” The butler leans closer. “No rules have been broken.”

Biten's stutters for a second, failing to make her mind. “N-No! Don't you get it? She just—” Her pupils shrink as she reaches another conclusion. “Ah, so that's how it is…”

The butler tilts his head. “Hmm?”

“Of course, since both of you are Inaba, you would only side with Tewi.” The Sarugami sighs, dropping her back. “We didn't think this through. Of course this kind of bias would happen!”

The butler casts a look into the Sarugami before closing his eyes, letting out a sigh for himself. He walks to the backshelves of the coffee stand, returning briefly with his gloves off. His metallic palm shines as he balls his hand to a fist, aiming to the skies. His eyes are filled with malice. “I am sorry.”

The Sarugami panics, her pupils shrinking as she tries to grab her pole weapon in an instant before the butler slashes through the air. Closing her eyes, she flails her arms pitifully, blocking anything and nothing that comes into her.

Nothing comes into her.

She opens her frightened eyes, peeking at the butler in front of her. She jumps to her back as a silver platter greets her sight, one severed finger present in the center of it. She brings her hands to her attention, counting all her intact fingers. “W-WHAT? WHAT DOES? WHAT IS THAT???”

“An apology.” The butler speaks, blood pouring out of his hand. “And an insurance.”

Despite the blood flowing out of his severed finger, he does not flinch, even in the slightest. His eyes shine with a cold determination.

“I am sorry for the impression I have given to you. It seems that my mannerism does not represent that of a neutral party. I am the ‘referee’ of this match. Thus, it is also my duty to act and appear as the middle ground of this game. I apologize for not doing that.” He glares into her soul with a stern, serious look in his face. “It is also my duty to keep this match as fair as possible. And I can assure you, I have never misjudged anyone in my time as a ‘referee’. My judgments have never been closer to that of a fact. We rabbits would rather take our lives than to break our own morals. You could take my ring finger here as an assurance.” He puts the silver platter on the ground, wrapping his bloody finger with his cloth. “Miss Tewi never gives anything that indicates her prior knowledge of the trigger's position, and you have no proof of that either. Her bluff is simply a coincidence.”

He turns around, facing himself back into his duty. The machine returns to its original position as the butler resets the round, letting go of the blonde's hand.

“We will wait before the next round starts.” The butler declares. “All participants could relax and have a break in the coffee stand, I'll serve you all as equals.”

“One cup of hot coffee, please.” Tewi jumps to the counter, sitting in one of the chairs with her legs crossed. The Jidiao walks closer, approaching Biten steadily into the seat.

“Y-Yachie! Are you alright?”

“A glass of iced water.” She sits on the chair, placing her fingers on the right side of her neck.


“Miss, this is a coffee stand.” The butler replies, answering the Jidiao's request. “Well, it's not like I can't serve you one. But if you really want it, I'll give it to you.”

“Please, just a glass of iced water.”

“Understood.” He returns to the back shelves, preparing the requests. The Sarugami bends her body, gazing at the Jidiao with a concerned look.

“Is everything fine, Yachie?”

The blonde covers her mouth with an arm, looking away for a second before snippets of her laughs contact the Sarugami's ears. Biten is puzzled even further as the butler also suppresses his chuckles.

“W-What?! What am I missing?”

“You're getting worried for nothing.” The butler explains. “Acting like she would die the moment she loses a round.”

Biten raises her eyebrow, trying to piece together what's going on.

“I've explained it before, haven't I? Epinephrine is one of the hormones that the body can produce naturally. One of its effects is increasing the blood sent to the brain from the blood vessels, thus raising one's focus and awareness, as well as giving them more energy.” He pours his coffee into a filter, serving it in a fancy cup. “Judging from her expression, I think Lady Kicchou knows that Tewi is showing her the trigger.”

Her pupils flinch as the Sarugami draws her conclusion, faltering in disbelief. “Y-You mean, she pressed the trigger on purpose?”

The butler doesn't reply, returning to his work with a grin on his face.

“You seem so worried, Biten.” Yachie speaks, massaging her own neck. “I can't help but to amuse myself seeing you like that.”

The Jidiao lets her jaw agape—the Sarugami out of words—before she cups her chin and puts it back together. “I-I know you had it planned, as expected from Kicchou!”

The two continue to chatter as Yachie explains her thoughts on the first round. Sitting in the opposite corner is Tewi, talking with the butler as she slowly sips her coffee. The Inaba doesn't seem to pay her mind on the advantage Yachie has gained. In fact, she doesn't care at all.

After all, the only thing that differentiates a poison and a cure is their dosage.

“Before we start the next round, there is something we need to talk about. Miss Tewi has a proposal to add some stakes in the next rounds.”

The butler doesn't get the chance to demonstrate as the lucky rabbit jumps before him, placing herself on the seat beside the Jidiao. “You see, Yachie, I heard that your partner right there is in debt at the moment. Two million, is that correct?”

The blonde replies with a simple nod. “Don’t get me wrong. My purpose here is to rob more from you guys. Two million is a small amount for the Kiketsu Family.” The Sarugami beside her narrows her eyes.

“Glad that we’re on the same page.” The Inaba winks. “Usually, for every round we will multiply the wager by two. What about if we multiply it by ten instead, don't you agree?”

Her pupils dilate, thoughts focusing on the deal before her. “That means, this round we will wager about two-hundred thousand yen. And in the third round we will have two million, enough to pay her debt.” The Jidiao places two fingers on her neck, gently ministrating them. “I can't refuse this.”

“But! We'll need to increase the dosage too!” The Inaba shows a toothy grin. “For every round, our dosage will be multiplied by two. So in this round, two milligrams will be injected into our bodies, and in the third round there will be four.” She explains, leaning against Biten's back, the Sarugami herself seemingly not happy with it. “It’ll accelerate the pace of our game. How about it?”

Yachie stares at her with a deadpan look, lips turning into a flat line. “Then I want to apologize in advance, for this is exactly what I wanted to happen.”

“Pfft.” She waves her hand, returning to the butler. “You heard that, right?”

He motions into the machine, tweaking some panels before declaring. “Then the rules are set.”

The wide screen switches on, displaying the following statistic:


Current wager: 200.000 yen, 2 mg

Yachie: 135/90
Epi: 1 mg
Mel: 0 mg

Tewi: 110/80
Epi: 0 mg
Mel: 1 mg


Yachie stares intensely at the screen, sweat forming on her forehead as she rubs her neck. She stands up and approaches the machine, ready for the next round, only stopping when she hears Biten calling her name.

“You haven't drank your water!” The monkey girl points to the glass of ice, left untouched.

“Ah.” Yachie smiles, palms on her neck. “Save that for later.”

The jaws open wide, its teeth clattering with each other as the butler stands in front of it.

“This round will have Miss Tewi as its first turn.” He bows down, moving out of the way. “Eight sharks remain.”

Yachie could feel heart beating faster, her breaths becoming more rapid as time went on. She takes a deep inhale, holding it in her pulmonary before slowly exhaling them. She takes a quick look at her skin, pale white, but not quite the usual white, as if it looks more pale than before.

Tewi hovers her arm across the eight sharks, blindly choosing which one to pick.


“Say, if you win this, what will you use the money for?”

“Huh?” Tewi is stunned at the sudden question.

“One shark is pressed, seven sharks left.”

“No, I don't mean the money from this gamble alone.” Yachie scratches the back of her head. “This place, you’re the one who keeps it running, am I right? An Inaba told me that you were keeping the money collected here in Eientei. What are you going to do with all that money? Where will you spend it?” She lands her hand in one of the sharks, the machine staying still.

“Two sharks, six remains.”

“I'm not really sure.” The Inaba cups her chin, looking at the light with the symbol of an endless knot. "I just don't like the overall idea. Think about it, it’s just an unbalanced way of profit. Those who win earn big, while those who lose lose it all. They keep piling all this fortune into themselves, as if digging a hole, the bigger the mound they make, the deeper the hole they dig.” She touches the metal top of the shark, gently pressing on it. It feels as if they are freezing, or perhaps she's the one getting colder here.

“Three sharks, five remaining.”

“Tell me more.” Yachie looks at her in full attention, wandering her arm around the machine.

“There’s Yin and Yang in everything. For every Yin conceived, there's another Yang born with the exact strength to oppose it. Those who win big from a gamble keep piling their misfortune before their ultimate downfall. They deserve to get their punishment.” The Inaba yawns, her eyelids slowly but steadily getting heavier.

“Mhmm, is that so?” Yachie wraps her arms around the rabbit's, firmly gripping her fingers together, Tewi not making any attempt to resist. “Why do you believe that so much? Has something happened to you?

Biten hums, curiosity filling her brain as she looks at the Jidiao's unusual behavior. Why is she so talky all of a sudden?

“It's the principle of life.” The Inaba's dark red eyes start to lose its light. “A great leader will gain power from their position, but they will have to lose their time and freedom in the process.”

“I understand your woes, little rabbit.” Yachie flashes a devious smile, the corners of her eyes wrinkles like a maniac. “It must be hard to be the leader of the earth inaba.”

Holding her head, the monkey youkai concentrates. Water pours in her forehead as Biten observes her leader, trying to find the reason of her actions—

>“Would you happen to know where they keep the money here, little rabbit?”
>“I have not an idea, Miss. Though, if I were to guess, they probably keep all that money somewhere up there, in one of the rooms of Eientei.”

Wait, she remembers it! The Jidiao also uses this to get rid of the guards and manipulate the naive Inaba prior. Her signature power, the ability to remove one's will to fight back!

Tewi doesn't retaliate to the Jidiao's advances, mouth starting to drool as her eyes lose their focus. Yachie grabs the Inaba's hand, lifting and guiding it to the sharks. “Would you happen to know where the trigger is, Tewi Inaba?”

The rabbit moves her hand, gesturing it to one of the sharks in the middle. Yachie presses the shark other than the one Tewi shows to her.

“Four sharks are down, four remaining.” The butler announces, not showing any signs to stop Yachie's manipulation. “It is Miss Tewi's turn.”

“Do a favor for me, little rabbit.” Yachie closes her mouth to the Inaba's ears and whispers. “Press the trigger.”

Tewi halts for a moment, staring blankly at the machine before she moves her hand, approaching the foretold trigger. “You have convinced me.” This is it! The Inaba hovers her hand to the trigger, pressing it and—

“Five sharks are down, three sharks left.”

The Sarugami's eyes burst wide, her mind blown as her jaw drops to the floor.

“Yachie Kicchou.” The rabbit turns to face her, her lips smiling with malice. “You have convinced me that you are utterly an idiot.”

Her pupils shrink as the Jidiao takes a step back. Confused, she shrugs her head and fixes her composure, but the Inaba jumps at her and bashes their foreheads together. “Didn't you know that a certain rabbit here also has the ability to control people's mind? Don't you think I'd be used to these kinds of power?” She stares into the Jidiao's eyes, her retina burns with an unbreakable will. Yachie realizes the sheer fortitude of her mental.

Tewi steps aside, grabbing a wooden chair and bringing it to the middle of the room, her back facing the machine. “I'm not the type to take things personally, yanno?” She looks at the light above her. “But, what you did kinda makes me a liiittle uncomfortable, I can't help feeling a bit upset. So, I'm gonna punish you.” Tewi points at the blonde, her back arching dramatically. “Whatever you do, the next shark you're pressing will be the trigger.”

Yachie's heart beats like crazy, blood flowing like a river in her veins. “Heh, what a joke, nobody could decide something like that.” She turns to the machine, looking at the remaining three sharks. One out of three, the chance to hit the trigger is indisputably big, but chances are chances, right? She could still avoid pressing the trigger. After all, nobody could decide which fate would happen to an individual, she knows it in her heart.

Nobody can control fate.



And the round concludes.

“Two milligrams of epinephrine is injected into Yachie Kicchou, as two milligrams of melatonin is injected into Tewi Inaba.”

Yachie couldn't move her arm, the tight gap between the mechanical teeth preventing her from doing anything. The muscles in her upper extremities contract, trying to pull away from the sudden burst of chemical entering her veins. The left ventricle of her core squeezes itself tighter, furiously pumping the blood and transferring the epinephrine throughout her whole vascular system. The nodes in her myocardium charges itself to its limit, shocking the cardiac muscles in every beat. She tries to control the hyperventilation but to no avail.

Alas, the machine releases its jaws and Yachie is free to go. She bumps to the coffee stand and crashes to the chair, her subordinate helping to carry her body.

“Y-Yachie! You're okay, right? It's the same chemical. You planned this!” Her enthusiasm immediately shuts down as Biten looks at her face, blood running from her nose. “Y-YACHIE!” Biten starts to tremble, her tail curling before her. “I-I don't get it. It's the same chemical! Why would it react differently from the first time?”

The butler approaches the monkey youkai, hands folded in his pocket. “Epinephrine and melatonin are both important hormones. Even one-tenth of a milligram is enough for the body to react. They are both hydrophilic, meaning they can easily dissolve in water and travel through the cardiovascular system. Epinephrine, however, reacts slightly faster, as it also works as a neurotransmitter, meaning that once it reaches the cells in her body, it will react in an instant.”

The butler walks to the wide screen, punctuating the following statistic:


Yachie: 165/110
Epi: 3 mg
Mel: 0 mg

Tewi: 100/70
Epi: 0 mg
Mel: 3 mg


“These two hormones affect one thing in common. Blood pressure. Epinephrine increases the activity of the heart, raising the blood pressure in the process. Melatonin works the opposite, decreasing the heart's activity and reducing the blood pressure.”

The butler points to the numbers beside the names on the screen. “These are their current blood pressure. The bigger number represents the systolic blood pressure, this pressure is the result of the heart contracting. Meanwhile, the smaller number is the diastolic blood pressure, which, as opposed to systolic, is the pressure of the heart when it's in the resting state. When the blood pressure is too high, the pressure alone could damage the walls of the arteries. This state is referred to as Hypertension. When the systolic pressure reaches one hundred and thirty, the person is deemed to have stage one hypertension.”

Biten recalls the numbers at the start of the second round, with Yachie's reaching one hundred thirty five at that time.

“Then,” The butler continues. “When the systolic pressure reaches one-forty or higher, the person is deemed to have stage two hypertension. Yachie Kicchou is currently experiencing this.”

The butler rolls the sleeves of his tuxedo, exposing his wrists and pressing two of his fingers into it. “There’s also the last one, when the systolic pressure reaches one-eighty and higher, they enter a state of critical danger. A hypertension crisis. This state is dangerous— No. Deadly, to the body.”

Yachie stumbles in the Sarugami's arms, her left arm desperately grabbing at her heart while the other pressing her neck.

“We could say that the main goal of the players in this game isn't to avoid pressing the trigger. It is to avoid their blood pressure from going too high or too low.” He raises his arms to the sky, the blood from his severed finger dances between the light. “It is a brilliant battle of wits and endurance!”

Biten clings at her leader, holding her body as the laugh of the lucky rabbit reaches her ears.

“You're such a pitiful leader.” Tewi gazes at the bright light atop of her, letting out all of her suspended joy. “You want to pay her debt? Nonsense! You couldn’t even beat a Komainu before! What makes you think you could EVER beat me?”

The butler gazes at the two parties, twisting the tip of his mustache as he makes his own conclusion of the round. He walks towards Yachie, her body lying helplessly as she pinches her own nose, closing the airway while she tries to force her breath out. The butler shakes his head, shutting his eyes at the poor Jidiao. He takes a step back and—

A loud smack reverberates through the wooden counter as the Jidiao slams her hand, balancing her legs and pushing herself up. “What are the lethal dosages?” Yachie asks.

The room falls silent for a brief second before the butler replies. “You mean the hormones? The safe dosage of epinephrine is half a milligram. For melatonin, The safe dosage is about one to five.”

“Then I only need two more milligrams.” The Jidiao flashes a confident grin. “I remember the rules stating that the player will only lose if they can't continue the match.” Yachie crosses her arms behind her, leaning to the back as she looks at her opponent, teasing her with an upside-down face. “I could still go another round.”

Biten looks at her leader, her eyes glimmering due to her conviction. The Inaba casts an eye to the Jidiao, looking at her with patronizing pity. “Fine, if you like torturing yourself that much, I'll bite.” She throws the chair at her, landing it right in front. The Inaba lunges into the wooden seat, tilting it forward as it balances, her face up close to the Jidiao. She looks at her with sinister downcast eyes. “Don't blame me for your death.”
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The light travels through the room, crossing through the liquid as it passes the glass of iced water. The tired Jidiao and her subordinate rests their body upon the wooden counter as they wait for the butler to prepare the third round.

“Coffee.” The pink-dressed Inaba requests. “Hot coffee.”

The butler replies as he picks a coffee pack from the back shelves. “On it, Miss Tewi. How about you, Kicchou?”

Yachie glances at her previous drink, untouched from the previous round. “Another iced water, use a jug this time.” She presses her neck with her fingers.

The butler doesn't question anything of her request, going to work on it immediately. Yachie flashes a smile, looking at the well-mannered Inaba before her subordinate obstructs her view.

“You—” The Sarugami bites her tongue. “You don't have to do this, Yachie.” She clenches both of hands, looking down. “This whole mess is my problem. I— We shouldn't risk your life because of this. That rabbit, I underestimated it at first, but her luck is… It's real… As if the world bends at her will.”

Yachie peeks at the Inaba, taking a sip from her cup of coffee as the butler serves her request. Not long after, the butler comes with the Jidiao's request, bringing a jug full of iced water. She stares at the drink, seeing the reflection of an exhausted leader, blood tracing from her nose. She uses the sleeves of her light blue shirt to wipe it.

“Let me tell you something, Biten. You’ve maybe heard of it, this is before you joined our faction.”

Biten lifts her head, staring at the Jidiao wearing an expression that cleanses her previous worry, as if she has a newfound power within.

“The machine is ready.” The butler declares. “All participants should prepare before the third round starts.”

The leader of the Kiketsu Family closes her face to her subordinate as she whispers. “I’ve beaten a goddess before.” Yachie stands up, turning her back to the Sarugami as the light shines before her. “A mere rabbit could never best me.”


Current wager: 2.000.000 yen, 4 mg

Yachie: 159/105
Epi: 3 mg
Mel: 0 mg

Tewi: 100/70
Epi: 0 mg
Mel: 3 mg


“The third round will have Yachie Kicchou as its first turn, with a total of seven sharks to press.” The butler steps aside as the Jidiao approaches the mechanical jaws. Her hand hovers between its teeth as she contemplates which shark to press.

Tewi Inaba stands before her, watching the green scales of her shell as she recalls the event that happened during previous rounds. That jidiao almost got her, the Inaba thinks in her mind. The side-effects of melatonin has weakened her mind in the second round, and she realizes that she would’ve fallen for the Jidiao’s ability had the boost of caffeine not wake her up. Had she not asked for a coffee at that time, she would have been at a great disadvantage. She must focus her mind from now on.

The Inaba have a question on her mind; With all of that accumulated epinephrine in her blood, how can the Jidiao stand still on her foot? The Jidiao should have been sweating excessively, her legs trembling with her mind breaking due to the amount of adrenaline. Three milligrams are way over the limit, six times of its safe dosage. Yachie must have something up her sleeves.


“One shark is pressed, six sharks remain.”

Yachie can feel her heart exploding in relief as she presses on her decision. She turns around, letting Tewi choose between the remaining six. The Inaba lifts her hands over the machine, her body freezing as her head spins in dizziness. She gathers all of her focus, trying her best to close the distance of her hand with the sharks, feeling the distance becoming longer, and longer, and longer, and longer—

Tewi returns to her mind, going back at the issue she was wondering previously. Yachie must have been planning something. She slowly turns her head around, looking at the Jidiao from the corner of her eyes. Yachie is pressing her neck using her two fingers, ministrating them in repeating steps. What is she doing? The Inaba tries to recall any maneuvers regarding the neck.

>“A glass of iced water.” She sits on the chair, placing her fingers on the right side of her neck.
>The Jidiao places two fingers on her neck, gently ministrating them. “I can't refuse this.”

Her pupils dilate, realizing the secret behind Yachie’s endurance. A simple maneuver that can lower the blood pressure by stimulating the neck's baroreceptor, the Carotid Sinus Massage! By pressing her fingers on her carotid artery, the massage would trigger the vagus nerves and, as it innervates with the SA node of the heart, it would significantly decrease its activity, lowering the blood pressure in the process. She has been doing that since after the first round, hence why she's able to take three milligrams of epinephrine in her body. There is also a significant drop in her blood pressure on the screen, showing its result in real time. That's it! The Inaba has figured it out!


The rabbit presses the shark with a newfound confidence.

“Two sharks are pressed, five remaining.”

The Inaba returns to the back, flashing a smile to the Jidiao. Yachie doesn't pay a mind to it, however, as she's busy scheming her plan on the current round. Recalling the first round, she realizes that Tewi's ability plays a big factor in her successes. Yachie has already checked on each of the sharks, nothing that could distinguish each of them from the rest. Her luck must have enabled her to correctly guess where the trigger is, solely relying on her intuition on where the position would be.

Even if that's the case, Tewi can't keep relying on her luck. Yachie has analyzed the Inaba's movements; her walk slightly disoriented as the rabbit tries to balance herself, her eyes becoming weary as her body's temperature becomes lower and lower in each injection of melatonin. Even if Yachie is at her limit, Tewi can't keep avoiding pressing the trigger too; she needs to raise her blood pressure at some point. Sooner or later—

“Sooner or later, I'd need to press the trigger.” The voice of the Inaba pulls Yachie out of her thoughts, shaking her entire body. “That's what you are thinking, right?”

The Jidiao shuts her mouth, sweat flowing from her entire body as she tries her best to keep her composure. “What are you talking about.” Yachie presses one of the sharks, and the machine stays still.

“Three sharks, four remaining.”

“That is the only way you could survive this round.” Tewi explains. “Afterall, I'm at my limit too, right? I need to press the trigger to raise my blood pressure.” The hare approaches the tortoise, uttering her words in a dreadful grim. Her eyes burn with dark determination. “I've made up my mind, Jidiao. I know where the trigger is, and I won't press it this round.” The Inaba approaches the machine, leaving Yachie in cold sweat. Tewi does not press the trigger, and the machine stays still.

“Four sharks are pressed, three remain.”

Yachie's face turns pale, her heart thumping as if it would burst in any second. Rivers of sweat wrap around the Jidiao's arm as she brings it towards the three options given to her. One out of three. One out of three. There's still a chance to not press the trigger. She only needs to brace herself, calm herself down, focus her mind on the remaining sharks. She moves her arm forward, fighting against the stream of survival instinct that screams for her to stop. She places her fingers on one of the sharks, gently pressing its tip and—

Yachie returns to her vision, her ears ringing from the clashing sound of metal; the machine's teeth gripping her arm.

“The round concludes. Four milligrams of epinephrine is injected into Yachie, four milligrams of melatonin into Tewi.”

Yachie is left stunned, her eyelids opening wide as she looks at the device in her forearm, the visible substance on the tubing slowly but surely reaching her veins. She brings her other arm to her neck and—

Something grabs her arm, preventing her from messaging the neck. Yachie looks at the perpetrator, the corner of the Inaba's lips are raised to the eyes, the muscles flexing on her entire face as the smile displays her teeth. “Don't even think of it.”

Her heart collapses, the valves on her core shutting so loudly that the sound reaches her ears. Her myocardium squeezes into a pulp each time it forces the blood throughout her body. Her aorta has to endure the killing pressure in each pump, scraping the artery wall as the red blood cells stomp everything in its way. Yachie throws her head to the machine, vomiting blood into the mechanical jaws as epinephrine fills her body.

She can't hear anything, not even the deafening laugh of the opponent beside her, not even the yelling of help from her subordinate in the back, not even the clearing announcement from the butler. All she can do is wait for the machine to let her go.

“How does it feel?” Tewi says, stopping her laughter. “The pounding in your heart, the sharp pain in your head, the weariness of your muscles, all in order to attain your 'easy' fortune. Luck isn't just a phenomenon that occurs at random. It's an opportunity that comes with a cost, and the only hands that could grasp that opportunity are the ones who have struggled their way.” She moves to the middle of the room, placing her chair below the light as the symbol of endless knot falls into her. “We rabbits are accustomed to misfortune. All those slaughters, abuse, and experiments. We are so accustomed that the moment that opportunity presents itself, we'd have been extending our arms to attain them with all our might.” She looks to the skies, hands reaching upwards. “We have gone through the darkest pits of Hell and reached the brightest peaks of Heaven!”

Just when the Jidiao is losing her consciousness, the machine loosens its grip, releasing her from the clutches of metal. The Jidiao stumbles her way into the coffee counter, crashing into her subordinate's arms as the Sarugami holds her. Biten's heart races as she looks at the screen, Yachie's systolic counter reaching dangerous numbers. One-seventy, one-eighty, one-ninety, it will keep growing and growing at this rate! She could feel guilt filling her heart, is she going to be responsible for her leader's death? What is she going to do?

“It seems that Yachie couldn't continue the round.” The butler folds his arms behind his back. “We could bring her to Eientei, the paramedics there will return her state into normal, but that would mean she is officially quitting the game.”

The Sarugami is stuck in a dilemma, her mind stagnating as she stays in place, not taking any action. But, her leader! Her leader is her priority! She must ensure her safety no matter what. A mere two million yen is nothing compared to her life.

“..ten…” As the Sarugami opens her mouth to speak, attempting to close the game, the words die in her throat when the Jidiao points to the jug, instructing Biten to bring it closer. She wastes no time to grab the handle, lifting the jug of iced water and bringing it into Yachie.

But when she tries to tip it into her mouth, the Jidiao’s hand reaches the jug and lifts it up, pouring the iced water right into her face. Both of their clothes turn wet as the liquid dampens them.

“S-SORRY!” The monkey youkai apologizes after emptying the jug, cubes of ice sticking in the Jidiao's face. She immediately puts the jug at the wooden counter, picking at the cubes one by one. Her eyes start to water, tears leaking in its corner. Biten closes her eyes, blaming herself for her incapability to become a good subordinate.

“Thank you, Biten.”

The Sarugami opens her eyelids, realizing her leader is no longer in her carry. She looks to her front, seeing Yachie with a renewed vigor, standing in all her pride. Wait, is she hallucinating?

Yachie looks at the wooden counter, seeing the glass of iced water she left in the previous round. “Almost forgot this.” She picks the glass up and pours its content all over her face, the ice refracting the light as it falls in the air. The cold water blends with the red blood on her shirt. She puts the glass down and talks to the butler.

“Let's continue the game.” She smiles nonchalantly, her lovely eyelids shimming with the droplets.

Tewi can not believe her eyes, rubbing it just to make sure that her vision is correct. “But, your blood pressure—” The Inaba looks at the counter, dropping her jaws as it displays the following numbers;


Yachie: 172/118
Epi: 7 mg
Mel: 0 mg

Tewi: 93/67
Epi: 0 mg
Mel: 7 mg


Tewi gouges her eyes to the wide screen. What? What happened to her blood pressure? It was reaching two hundred just a moment ago! The Inaba stares at the ground, looking at the puddle of cold water.

Then, as if intertwined, the mind of both Tewi and the butler clicks at the same time.

The room falls silent for a long second until the butler breaks the ice, laughing out his admiration to Yachie. Dumbfounded, the monkey youkai chooses to not speak a word until he decides to explain it.

“Mammalian Dive Reflex!” The butler shouts, putting his hand to Biten's shoulder. “It is a reflex hardwired to our genetics in response to cold water submersion, especially if it hits the face. A physiologic reaction that occurs when the nostrils become wet. When triggered, the carotid chemoreceptors affect the cardiovascular system, slowering the heart rate. It is an effective way to treat high blood pressure!” The butler claps his hand, shaking his head in amazement. “To think that you've planned it since the first round… Splendid, Kicchou! You're one of the most cunning people I've met!”

His black and white suit crumples as he laughs his heart out. The Sarugami wipes her head, fixing her golden tiara as she exhales, releasing the air she didn't know she was holding. Yachie swats her light blue shirt, tainted with her red blood, as she brings her tail to her front, caressing the green scales.


The subtle laugh from Tewi reminds the butler of his duty, her ears wrinkles as the pink dress sways with the air, frills dancing on the flow. She balls her arms to a fist.

“You got me, congratulations.” The Inaba says, bags below her tired eyes. “It seems that this game won't end if this keeps going. So, for the next round, let's add some new rules.” Her body slightly oscillates to the left and right, her skin cold as snow. “We will multiply the money by a hundred, and if you survive the next round, you win! But, you can't use any of your fancy tricks from this point onwards, this includes massaging your neck or bathing yourself in cold water.”

Yachie takes a side view to the rabbit, nodding her head. “Are you sure?” Her smile irritates Tewi. “Those rules sounded unfair to you.”

“Oh, don't worry about me, I just want to make sure that the next round will be the last.”

Her yellow hair swings to the front as Yachie crosses her arms. “Then I'd have no objection.”

“Then, let me clarify the rules for the last time.” The butler declares. “Round four will start with six sharks, Tewi Inaba as its first turn. If Kicchou is able to survive this round, she will get two hundred million yen in total. Any tricks to lower the blood pressure is prohibited.” He tucks his tuxedo, straightening his sleeves. “The injection on this round will be set to eight milligrams, the total amount of flasks for one box, please wait as I refill the chemicals.” He pulls the slot from the two tubes behind the machine, drawing the small identical boxes out. “I will need to go back to the treasure room, please don't make any ruckus while I'm out.” The butler opens the door of the room, leaving the three.

The Jidiao walks towards the middle of the room, her scales sparkling under the light. The rabbit leans to the wall, closing her eyes as she stops bothering any other thing beside her conscious want.

Right now, she only wants to see her fall.


Current wager: 200.000.000 yen, 8 mg

Yachie: 172/118
Epi: 7 mg
Mel: 0 mg

Tewi: 93/67
Epi: 0 mg
Mel: 7 mg


The sound of the wheel cogs enriches the otherwise silent room.

“The machine is ready.” The butler folds an arm in front of his chest, standing royally. “Tewi Inaba is allowed to use her first turn.”

Her pink dress swings as she approaches the metal jaws. Tewi directs all her focus to her intuition, following her heart to locate where the trigger will be. Her temperature has dropped drastically, gripping her in an antagonizing cold. Her arm shivers as she brings her palm towards the selection of sharks. Which one? Which one is it? She looks to her back, observing Yachie, the Jidiao not making any attempt to massage her neck. Good, she can't do that anymore. This time, she'll make sure that her idiot face falls first to the ground.


“One shark, five sharks remain.”

The Inaba switches her position with Yachie. The butler stays in his position, watching the match before Biten draws near him, her red eyes glooming to the floor .

“Do not try to disturb me, Sarugami. I know you’re worried, your leader's life is on the line.”

“No, I'm fine.” She puts her arms together in front of her chest, clenching them as the golden rods on her wrists bump each other. “Yachie’s going to be fine, I'm sure of it. S-She planned everything! Even if she pressed the trigger, I'm sure she could endure her blood pressure in one way or another!”

The butler shakes his head. “I don't know about that.” The Sarugami tilts, looking at him with a questioning gaze. “If Yachie pressed the trigger this round, the total epinephrine accumulated in her body would reach fifteen milligrams. It's physiologically impossible for the body to maintain that much. The blood's viscosity alone would become too thick for the arteries. The kidney would be the first organ to try to fight back, breaking the nephrons in the process. Once the kidney fails, it will start a chain reaction of disturbance on each of her organ systems, resulting in continuous total organ failure. If Yachie hits the trigger…”

He stops his explanation as the Jidiao presses a shark, the machine stays still.

“Two sharks, four remains.”

Yachie can feel heart thumping in her chest, as if a hand is manually squashing the muscles. She takes a deep breath, returning to the back as Tewi replaces her position.

The Inaba hovers her arm, using her intuition to guess, her heart is set to see Yachie lying lifelessly on the floor. She wants to see her pitiful face bloodied. To see her crawl on all fours, cleaning her rabbit foot with her mouth, begging for her mercy. Her arm trembles as she steadies her breathing. The white hare places her hand on the shark's top.


Why is she doing this?

“Seven sharks, three remaining.” The white hare placed her hand on the shark's top, balancing her foot on their back. She readied herself to jump into the next shark. “Eight sharks, two remaining.” She landed on the third to last shark, seeing the end of the sea right in front of her. The view of the Island excited her heart, silently laughing at the line of foolish sharks she had successfully deceived. The white hare kept piling her fortune, stacking it higher and higher.

“You see that, rabbit? Our clan is clearly larger than the hares!” The shark below her said.

“Please, don't move. I almost lost my count there.” The hare replied, hopping to the next shark. “Nine sharks, one remaining.” She kept accumulating her Yin, almost breaking its limit. “And… Ten!” She jumped to the last shark, holding her laugh.

“How about it, rabbit? Do you see the big difference between our clan-” The leader of the sharks stopped his sentence as the Hare finally broke her composure.

“Oh! You stupid sharks, now I am done with you!” Not content with her wish, she began to jeer at the sharks instead of thanking them. She leapt off the last one's back, escaping—

Her heart stopped beating as she floated in the air, her movement suddenly stopping. She looked back, seeing one of the sharks bite at her legs. The furious shark brought her down to the sea, diving deeper and deeper as other sharks started to gather around the rabbit. Her lungs struggled as it tried to breathe, filling her pulmonary with the sea's water. She screamed with all the power she had, but only the sinister laugh of the sharks that came back to her. The sharks started to chomp her down, ripping her fur and exposing her muscles. The salt from the water touched her flesh, punishing her with deep, excruciating pain that left her soul out of her body. This was the moment she understood. For every piled up fortune will come crashing down into misfortune of the same velocity.

This was her first time she felt the agonizing pain. Her first Yang.

“Miss Tewi?”

The Inaba returns to her vision, hovering her hand above the machine. The butler's voice wakes her up from her black-out.

“Two sharks left, please make your decision.”

Tewi looks at the sharks under her hands. A fifty-fifty chance…

Biten opens her eyes wide, staring at her leader with her last glimmer of hope, wishing all her faith on Tewi to press the trigger. Yachie clenches at her heart. If Tewi misses the trigger here, she would have no choice but to press it. The result of this game lies under Tewi's hands!

Her pink dress dances within the flow of air, strands of her black hair flying as the light falls into her, blessing her with the symbol of fortune.

There are times when the fate of a person has been decided. There are times when the things that will happen to them is fixed, no matter what they do. There are also times when that person stops, just as they are reaching the finish line.

There are times, when the only thing stopping that person is their own fear, and all they need to finish the race is a little push.

Tewi clenches her hand, fighting against the rush of adrenaline that propels her away. She steadies her heart, pushing forward, finding the conviction within herself.

She will carry her resolve until the very end of this race.

She presses one of the sharks.

“Five sharks are pressed…” The machine stays still. “One remaining.”



“HAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHAHHAHA!” Tewi bursts into crazy laughter, her jaws opens like a lunatic as the facial muscles extends to the limit. She moves to the middle of the room, bringing her chair and sitting under the lamp. She roars her joy out as Yachie moves forward.

The Sarugami speaks no words, feeling her heart drop.

“Biten…” The Jidiao tells her. “When you return to the Animal Realm, tell our treasurer that she’ll be busy.” Yachie moves forward.

“Y-You're kidding!” Biten tries to stop her before the butler steps in, halting the Sarugami.

“Do not try to disturb the game, it is up to her decision to continue.”

The Inaba continues her laughter. “Of course! You still want to taste that fortune, you still desperately want to grasp that little thread of luck, even if the end has presented itself in front of your pitiful self, even if there's nothing left! When a gambler wins, their brain releases a chemical called dopamine. But! This mechanism also happens when they lose! That’s why most of them don't know when to quit, because they rely on luck, they keep relying on luck, not realizing the calamity hidden behind them!”

She gazes at the skies, the light greeting her as she lets out her catharsis. Yachie presses on the last shark…


“Those who rely solely on luck…” Tewi states as the machine closes its jaw. “Are unworthy of it in the first place.”

“And the round concludes…” The butler finishes the game, closing on Tewi.

“Ah, Butler. I've never felt this much joy before.” She can't wait to see the Jidiao's expression. “Would you please, announce the winner for me?”

He nods. “The victory goes for…” Tewi smiles in content, putting her arms behind the chair as she leans into it, closing her eyes.

“Yachie Kicchou.”

“Wh-” The Inaba goes blank. “Wh-WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATTTTT?????” She turns around, throwing her body away from the chair.

She is greeted by the Jidiao's face, grinning from ear to ear.

The hare stumbles to the ground, her leg failing her as she desperately tries to reach the finish line. None of her effort can help her. The accumulation of melatonin has taken its effect on her body, numbing her nerves and stopping her in her tracks.

The hare lies on the ground, looking to the sky as the tortoise slowly approaches her motionless body. The tortoise stands in front, her body towering atop of her, preventing the light from reaching the hare and covering her in her shadows.

Alas, the hare can not do anything but utter. “How?”

The butler stands on the side, eyes in shock as Yachie sits on the chair, pulling out a cigarette and lighting it with her fire breath. “You're still asking that? Even after all the clues I've given to you?” She inhales her smoke, pointing to the two tubes behind the machine. “Take a look at the screen.”


Yachie: 128/82
Epi: 7 mg
Mel: 8 mg

Tewi: 73/57
Epi: 0 mg
Mel: 15 mg


The butler trembles, making his way to the back of the machine and pulling out the slot from the tubes. “What did you do, Jidiao? Did you replace them in the middle of the game? That would be breaking the rules.”

“Oh, no.” She replies. “You're wrong, Butler. The boxes were replaced before we started this round, and I'm not the one responsible for it.”

>“The injection on this round will be set to eight milligrams, the total amount of flasks for one box, please wait as I refill the chemicals.” He pulls the slot from the two tubes behind the machine, drawing the small identical boxes out.

The butler gouges his eyes at the realization, bringing the boxes of chemicals to his attention, their label still intact. “I— I put the right boxes into their respective tubes!”

The Jidiao titters. “I wouldn't call it right, but I wouldn't call it wrong either. If you look closely on the labels, you might see that the label of the epinephrine box is written in a slightly darker blue.”

>“Do you bring any markers here?” The blonde asks.
>“Markers, as in, color markers?” Her long tail wanders as it searches around the area, bringing back a grabful of color markers from one of the containers. “Why would you need this anyway?”
>“Nothing particular.” She picks one with a darker blue color from the bunch.

The Sarugami recalls her memory in the treasure room, her pupils shrinking. That moment, she replaced the label on the epinephrine box, switching the box with the melatonin one. But how, The Sarugami wonders, how did she know about the chemicals beforehand?

>“What I do know is the fact that there’s a treasure room for the medicines used for the games here, where all the rare, Eientei-brand, drugs are kept. It’s there in the right wing.”

That naive rabbit! She must have asked her about the game before they went to the treasure room! She has deduced that she would be playing the game! And the fact that the butler has to replace the chemicals too! This happens because the total accumulation of the chemicals after the third round has reached seven milligrams, while the total of flasks in a box is only eight. The butler is forced to refill them! It all happens because, at that time, they decided to double the dosage!

>She opens the box, revealing rows of tiny flasks neatly arranged in a grid consisting of two rows and four columns, eight flasks in total.
>Yachie stares at her with a deadpan look, lips turning into a flat line. “Then I want to apologize in advance, for this is exactly what I wanted to happen.

“But, but! How can I miss the label?” The butler cries, his hand reaching to the skies. “Why didn't I question the labels before? I'm sure I would've noticed them!”

“Correct.” Yachie answers. “You didn’t question it, just like when I asked for the iced water, you stopped questioning the second time.”

>“Another iced water, use a jug this time.” The butler doesn't question anything of her request, going to work on it immediately. Yachie flashes a smile, looking at the well-mannered Inaba.

“That time, I used my ability on you.” Yachie leans to the chair. “I removed your will to question.”

The butler falls on his knees, realizing that he has been controlled the whole time. She is like a puppeteer playing with her set of puppets. The tortoise leans down from her chair, closing her face to the hare. “Don't you get it now, rabbit? I came here because I decided it for myself. We played this game because I planned it to happen. You lost because I decided it for you.” She covers her face, crimson eyes shining between her fingers, “Because those who rely solely on luck are unworthy of it in the first place.”

The tortoise stands from her chair, walking towards the exit as her subordinate follows behind her, cheering the victor. "I'll be waiting for the money at my place. See you in Hell."

And the tortoise reaches the finish line.
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Beware, for here be a dragon! Many brave and powerful adventurers challenge the new master of this cave, but none have proven successful yet. In this lair where all see their last, where did their eyes fall upon before their demise? Some would look up at the ceiling that once had numerous stalactites, now smoothed out by his hot flame. For others, it was the walls and ground littered with treasures from their homeland or foreign lands that they have never seen or ever will. Most saw the new master, Money the Red Dragon, as their final sight. 
In his current human form, he wears clothing decorated with gold and a crimson-red cape. However, his more beastial side is shown by how damaged they are after he fought the gods of the marketplaces and by his flames. His eyes are golden with slit pupils, poised to kill anyone who enters until he sees it is merely an unarmed human. A hint of divine magic dwelled in her pouch strapped to her waist. Whatever is in there, it's his now. He focused on the human before him.
Her hair is as pitch black as her eyes. She wore a dull, almost bland outfit as if attempting to appear humble. The smile on her face went from ear to ear, and the wrinkles near her eyes showed that it was genuine. An unarmed human who's excited like Money gets when he makes his pile of treasure bigger. Humans were usually weird to him; they got angry at him as if he took something from them, but he had a feeling this one would take the cake.
Perhaps it's the blood loss or how odd this woman is, but he didn't react when she took her first step into his lair. He stares at her with bored interest while comfortably indulging in his treasures. She glances around, not giving the gold a second longer of her time before looking elsewhere. It was then when she saw the pile he was lounging on, that her eyes settled. She looked up at him and bowed.
"Greetings, Money, the rich and powerful." She says it in near-perfect English. "I am Tenkyuu Chimata, the most esteemed and humble merchant in all of Japan."
"State your reason for being here, human." He orders
"Why, I heard a being from a foreign land has moved into this mountain with exotic treasure never before seen." She splays her hands around the cave.
"How much are you willing to bargain for a single coin?" She asks.
"You have guts asking a dragon to bargain." He flares his nostrils, and smoke puffs out. "Or maybe you lack self-preservation?"
"I don't mean to brag, but..." A smirk spreads on her face. "When I got my omikuji, it said I would receive a great blessing in my future."
"Those are fortune papers, right? Today's your lucky day, then." He didn't seem to care much about what she said. "I'm in a good mood because I got this nice jewelry, so you get to leave here with your life."
"Hold on; don't write me off just yet." She takes a step closer to him and his pile of treasures. "Play your cards right, and you can get an ultra-rare value from me!"
He tilts his head. "What would stop me from taking it off your corpse?" His eyebrows furrow. "Unless you think I'm not tough enough to take you down?"
She raises her hands, shaking her head at rapid speed. "Oh no, no, no! I'm a human with no weapons; nothing is stopping you from ending me here and now." Chimata reaches into her pouch. "This, on the other hand, however,"
The human pulls out what may be the shiniest purple gemstone the dragon has ever laid eyes on. His pile of gold coins, silverware, and stolen trinkets pales compared to such a gem. It didn't last, however. His eyes squint, and his body curls up. A droplet of sweat runs down Chimata's face, but her smile remains strong.
"What game are you playing?" He asks, "You know how bad the situation is for you, but then say I won't be able to take that shining gem from you." His draconic wings spread open, making his appearance look larger than previously. "Explain yourself!"
"How about I show you instead?" Chimata clenches her hand and reels it back. "Catch!"
She throws the gem high up in the air; if it were to hit the ground, it would be marked by an ugly crack. His sharp teeth grind against themselves as he stands up. The human could have sworn she heard him grunt under his breath. He flaps his wing and ascends to the sky with his hands extending up. Her eyes widen as she catches a glance under his shirt. A large bloody line goes across his stomach that would have been fatal for anyone else like her. It reminds her that regardless of the fortune she drew, a dragon is right before her, and what she is about to do will anger him. Said dragon landed but stumbles backward with a pained expression.
He opens his hands to find nothing there. "Wha-?" His slit pupils focus in on her as fire pushes between the gaps of his teeth. "You!"
The gem she threw somehow managed to return to her hand. "That's right, me! With some help from the local gods near this mountain, of course." She says, "If you kill, steal, or torture me, you can kiss this pretty rock goodbye forever!"
"You came all the way here." He pushes himself up. "Just to show off something I can't have?!"
She licks her lips. "On the contrary, O powerful dragon, it can be yours." Chimata takes a deep breath before exhaling. "For a price, that is!"
A bestial like-growl leaves his throat, making her believe the dragon got so furious that his intelligence reverted to a wild animal.
"A piece of paper was all it took to convince you that bargaining with a dragon would be a good idea?" He asks, his tone has a calm fury to it. "You're utterly insane."
"So is this deal I got for you!" She puts the gem back in her pocket and claps her hands. "One gold coin from that vast pile of yours, and you can keep this precious gem."
"I would rather die than give a single bronze coin!" He shouts, "And besides, how do I know you won't double-cross me and steal my gold, hm? If you can make that gem teleport back to you, who's to say the gods won't teleport you somewhere else?"
"You make a good point there, but you see, there's another reason why I'm here." Chimata taps her chin, and a thoughtful hum leaves her lips before snapping a finger. "I'm also here to make sure you pay for the items you stole from the marketplace."
The two stared at each other before the dragon scratched his head with a single claw. "The one that had a huge rainbow over it." She says.
"Oh, that one with the unusual amount of gods running around." He crosses his arms over his chest. "What? Were they too scared to fight me, so they sent you instead?"
"Quite the opposite; after that wound, they gave you across the stomach." His eyes narrow, but she continues uninterrupted. "They were eager to hunt you down, but that's where I intervened."
"You showed them that fortune paper, and they gave you a shot with no means of protecting yourself."
"I will have you know that the gods of the marketplace are not heartless!" She stomps her way toward him. "They offered me plenty of protection, which I decline for your peace of mind, dragon, so I would like to ask you to cease with your disparaging comments!"
His eyes squint as his mouth spreads to a smile, perhaps amused by the human's outburst. "Sure, I'll keep my mouth shut. I forgot how sensitive you humans get when badmouthing your gods." He says.
Chimata clears her throat before continuing. "Thank you for your understanding." She says it out of politeness. "As I was saying, I promise the ichigami that I will return with your payment for those items you stole."
"What do the gem and my gold coin have to do with this, then?" He asks.
"Think of it as proof that I am a trustworthy individual to trade with." She explains, "Not only am I here for trade, but I also would like to build a rapport with a potential business partner."
The dragon suddenly cackles from the word 'partner' but lurches forward in pain from his wound. "M-Make a business partner with a dragon." He asks after catching his breath. "Lady, I don't think you realize what kind of creature I am."
He plunges his hand into the treasure pile, moving through it like it's a body of water rather than a dense pile of solid objects. The dragon stops moving and pulls out a necklace with a stone that has all the colors of a rainbow.
"Looks nice, right?" He holds it up to her and says, "I was ready to die for it."
He stands up and walks toward Chimata with a gold coin in his other hand. "I can give you this; it can belong to you, and it would be yours without question." The iris of his slit eyes glows yellow; it feels like she's staring at the sun. "But that's the thing; if I'm giving it to you, you're still taking it."
"And once I take it, you won't let me leave here alive." She finishes pulling the precious purple gemstone. "The gods of the merchant places have already warned me of dragons like you."
Silence fell in the cave. The danger in his eyes vanishes, and his lips tighten, preventing them from curling upward. He straightens his back, which accentuates the height difference between the two. Chimata didn't hide her smile, showing how proud she felt taking the wind out of his sail.
"That confirms that you're insane."
Her smile formed into a manic grin. "That is true, but let it be known that the human, Tenkyuu Chimata, did what the gods feared! I and I alone saved the marketplaces under the rainbow! Oh, how I weep for those special events that came before I was born. It matters not, however, whether I live or die; the only thing that awaits me is great fortune!" 
"Oh-ho? I don't think those gods would appreciate what you said, Chimata!" Seeing her deranged grin, he soon follows suit. "Don't expect me to worship you, though!"
"You can never be sure of the future, friend!" She says. "So, do we have a deal then?"
The two shake it and deposit their goods in the other's hand. Money held the gem above him, admiring the scenery through the purple lenses. Chimata flips the coin with her thumb, and a satisfying 'ding' echoes through the cave.
"I suppose it's time we haggle for the prices of those items I took?" He eyes her down.
"Of course, but something tells me you don't have much experience when it comes to bargaining, no?" She pockets the coin. "I can offer you some advice if you wish."
"Are you trying to get on my good side to avoid dying?" He asks.
She shakes her head and laughs, "Not at all! There's a certain enjoyment I take when it comes to trading; my final wish is to see that you have a pleasant experience from it like I do." She says.
"I see if that's the case then..." Money grabs a handful of coins below their feet. "There were some other items I took from the market. How much are you willing to bargain for them?"

Art by Alice from zerochan
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