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A young woman in purple robes was seated on the throne, the corner of her mouth quirked up behind the golden fan she held to her face.
She walked him with her eyes all across the room, and looked still after he had settled on the pillow arranged for him by the taciturn priestess. The woman had attended to him in the baths the temple had turned out to secrete in its deeper reaches; but though Tyke had temporised at first, he soon found she was not at all unmanned by his manhood. A compliant heart and a mouth void of complaints had earned him cleanness that had not drained him of his remaining strength. The gown he had been granted was a trifle over-official, but – the priestess had assured – only temporary. All in all it was a fair change from the ash-plastered cloaks and the scraps of pride he’d still had. The pillow made his exposed calves itch.
The woman on the throne – all purple and gold amusement – clacked her fan close with the sound of a decision.
“Well? You may speak.”
Tyke considered the responses, then thought better. Presently he slid his palms forward on the floor, touching his index fingers to one another, and bowed his entire upper body until his forehead touched the tops of his hands. The bow maintained little of the grace lady Yuyuko had originally given to it; but grace was the least thing on Tyke’s mind right then.
A low, repentant voice, he resumed his overdue apology.
The woman gave a soft, silvern chuckle.
“Oh, please, please. There are no gods here...”
“But you?” Tyke dared look up from the floor. “Aren’t you one?”
“What-ever do you mean?”
“You robe yourself in earthy clothes, but your radiance belies you. What are you? But I suppose it matters not. With the world burned as it is, we’re all in the same pot, men and gods.”
The woman smiled enigmatically, but there had been a lie in Tyke’s words. The man had but to look to see that the goddess had been taken unawares. The gold-embroidered collar of her cloak was bent the wrong way, and the state of her short, flaxen hair was rather less than immaculate. The side of her fan touched in a ponder to the middle of her lips; and when it came away, a pale spinel trace marked the gold-painted wood. A rushed goddess sat the throne, and she made little pretence of being otherwise.
At length, Tyke realised he had been staring and contritely lowered his eyes.
“You are perhaps right,” allowed the goddess, wiping her fan, “but regardless we have got off the wrong foot here, methinks. Sit, if you will please. An introduction shall have to precede the other pleasantries. So I ask you. Who are you, you who would claim the same pot as me? A human, to be certain – but whence did you come if the world is so burned? Well, all in due time. Sit, human. There is no need to be afraid. What is your name?”
Tyke returned by halves to a semblance of verticality. He could give her many names. He gave her the best he had.
The best he had made her laugh.
“A deceptive name, if it is one.” She righted herself with the help of a hand. “Though yes, now that I have it, it is only courteous I offer mine. Ah, how did we go about this, again? Oh yes. Ahem.” She cleared her throat. “My name doth be Miko, Toyosatomimi called. The house thou seest, and all environs which it surround, to me belong. Now in its borders welcome art thou, unto such a time whan hast thou out of favour fallen. So edict I.” There was a pause, and the goddess sketched a sign with one slim hand. “There. You’re no longer an intruder now. That is to the good, yes? Although I’m certain I wasn’t entirely correct; it has been a long time since I issued an official welcoming. Well, everyone makes mistakes from time to time.” She smiled again. “Even a goddess,” she added mock-ominously.
Tyke swallowed the implications of her words. “Then you are a goddess.”
Miko shrugged. “A woman. That equates to the same thing, doesn’t it? At least in our eyes, I find... I jest,” she reassured him. “I like the form of a temple, that is all. There is a certain mundane utility to it. However ironic that sounds. It builds a certain image.”
Doesn’t it just? thought Tyke. But electing a change of topic he said, “I have heard of you.”
The goddess – or no – nodded her head. “I should be crushed if you haven’t. What shall I make of it, though? To be certain if you have heard of me, either you must mask your age well, or have come from Gensokyo of the late. Tyke of Gensokyo... Still, since it is burned, mayhaps we should name you Tyke the Ashlander?”
“That is a cruel jape.”
“I apologise. Naming things and people new names is a quirk I fear I will never lose, not even with another thousand years. Well, at any rate... Shall I inquire after the tidings you bring? No, you have questions – do you not? Ask then, and I shall please you... however I might.”
Tyke sought a more agreeable posture as he composed coherent words of the contention in his head.
The issues were threefold: first the nature of this place, into which he had chanced, what this Miko fathomed of the world outside it, then lastly what alliance they might forge to battle what it had become; but whether they would Tyke found a noticeably thornier question. The may-be goddess was no any old whimsy deity, that much was plain. Nor did she lack for noble breeding. As a youth he had always enjoyed the gods from a distance, and his path lay so far below the divine orbits it amused him to be part of one’s intimate surrounds now. Yet Tyke sensed a touch too much entertainment derived from his reverence. A squirming suspicion he had the woman had admitted him here for no other reason than cheap distraction. The hell of it was, each time she gifted him with one of those quizzical smiles that she had, he felt giddily, likewise to a schoolboy taking praise from a teacher. Tyke had, sardonically, reverted to his namesake.
Men had muttered of Miko (before Gensokyo had burned) she was overbearing... but if hers was an earned and justified overbearing, Tyke’s apprenticeship had accustomed him to being overborne. And if her confidence doesn’t come only from this temple she’s built for herself, she may help me set our world back to rights. She may guise her divinity in a bedraggled manner, but an air of power one might not deny her. This was what the world required now.
Tyke was certain he had found the right woman.
The man inclined his head, signalling his decision. “To start with... What is this place?”
Miko brightened at the question. “This I can answer easily. Are you familiar with the theory of fragmented space?” As Tyke shook his head no, the woman pulled her legs from under her seat. She shrugged out of her robe to reveal a simple vest worn with long use, and crossed her legs at the ankles unrestrainedly on the surface before her. Her tiny feet were shamelessly bare. And shamelessly cute, for being a god’s. “Shall I educate you in its rudiments?” Miko mused aloud. “No, I suppose not. You would find small use of it. At any rate this place is my private, fragmented space – made by my own design. A home, after a fashion – one where I thought I would be unlikely to be disturbed. The principle is rather simple. The woman Yukari did something likewise for her Gensokyo itself. At least this is what I understand. The essence is dividing our conjured realities into smaller shards and spacing them across a larger, outer plane. Mine is Gensokyo. The insulation comes from carving it up into parts so small they cannot be passed through – or otherwise interfered with – from the outside. That, and being clever with the hiding place. You would never know, but you may have a tiny piece of my home stowed in your pocket – or,” she theorised with a smile, “tangled somewhere in your hair. No, do not linger on it. It will not give up much sense to you. There is a part, however, which we leave at a reasonable size – which then serves as an entrance. The truth is this ‘private’ retreat of mine may be accessed distressingly freely – provided you know where to look...”
Then it was an accident, Tyke concluded.
A streak of blind luck had located him nearby one of Miko’s bigger “shards.” The sudden blast of wind must have blown him even closer. And it was really my wild trashing that ultimately brought me through. Tyke drew a mental note to do more trashing in the future. The thing had proven useful after all. Married with luck, anyway. The audience with the goddess suffered a chip in importance this way (if all it was was a chance), but Tyke did not let it pain him. Unhonoured was better than dead. Alive better still.
Miko’s face was a study in delight. “You nurse the strangest times to choose silence, you Tyke of Gensokyo. What a curious people you are. A shame you had to burn...”
Tyke winced from her casual use of the term. The woman did not fail to show she had noticed.
“At any rate,” she went on, all soul of courtesy, “there is one endlessly fascinating thing I find about you. We agree your people – your world – had all burned—”
“—and yet somehow you survived. How fortuitous... You’ll forgive me my burning curiosity. To escape the annihilation of an entire realm... You must be some kind of god.”
A strained smile Tyke smiled at her self-indulgent jest. “A man, conceivably,” he returned, “but not, I hope, an irredeemable one. No, I wasn’t there when... I, too, was inside one such ‘private’ world at the time. Not mine, to be sure. I’d been hired for a job there: fixing a blade, broken prior in some odd circumstance; it was only thanks to that that I am alive now... All I know, one day we woke up to great flames lashing on our outer walls. Youmu bolstered the barrier; that’s how we kept the blaze at bay, but... I apologise. Youmu is... I will needs must return to her, my lady Toyosatomimi. Youmu is—”
“Hush, my Tyke of Gensokyo,” Miko cooed. “You needn’t speak. I can see into your heart. You care for this girl Youmu.”
Tyke masked his embarrassment with bitter laugher. “I was given little choice in the matter.”
“So you were.” Miko’s smile was less than sympathetic, but she continued: “At any rate I harbour no intent of keeping you overlong. You will return to this Youmu before the day is out; this I guarantee you.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
“There is but one thing viler than a woman scorned, and that is a woman after revenge... I do not make mistakes of this kind. You had other questions?”
“Yes, my lady. I did.” Tyke discovered easing into this mode of address buttressed the tenuous hold he had on his wit. He splayed out the hands he had squeezed into fists. Then once more he faced the bed-haired goddess. “The situation outside does not escape you. This makes me wonder. You are a goddess; surely you must know what happened out there. What wrought such utter destruction...”
“Yes,” said Miko. “I know what happened.”
Tyke all but leapt for the ceiling in joy. She knows!
Yet the goddess halted him with a warning palm: “Stay yourself. I know ‘what’ happened, but not ‘how...’ Nor ‘why.’ I sent out Futo – my trusted apprentice – to... gleam, what she could – but she returned empty-handed. I do not know what destroyed your world. Only that it did.”
Tyke felt as though air had been knocked out of his chest. Head spinning, he sank on his itching pillow.
Miko sighed her sympathy at the man. “As I said,” she resumed her explanation, “I do not know what had caused this desolation; all I know is this: that no less than thirty days ago a great tremor shuddered the foundations of my house. A great and formidable tremor – almost as if that of an earthquake; but I had not designed for earthquakes when I had stitched this place of its ether, Tyke of Gensokyo. That tremor had come from elsewhere – from the outside. Those were the fragments of my home I had placed in Gensokyo which were quaking. All of them; my entire world resonated within at the movement. It cost me many days’ worth of energy to keep it from falling apart. So many were quaking...” Miko trembled. Then she shook her head. “I do not know what destroyed your world, Tyke of Gensokyo,” she concluded. “I only know none of it suffered long. That is all. I’m sorry.”
And with that last admission, she fixed her eyes to the side to let him grieve undisquieted.
And for the duration of the next minute, Tyke grieved.
Yet grieving will not avail me anything, he realised presently.
Nor would brooding here achieve overmuch; no, entirely useless was to mope here when the world outside – the people outside who might yet remain there – begged saving. The world may be little but an ashen desert now, yes; but even now there were places – rare, hidden-away places – where the grass and trees grew obliviously on. Where the Sun shone on skies clear of sable smoke, and fields of wheat bent on immaterial winds. This place, and Hakugyokurou, and what other like places which he hadn’t yet discovered. These were the pockets of hope for the bleak burned world outside.
Tyke squared his shoulders, fully decided.
“Then we’ll show it we aren’t so easily rooted out,” he said. Miko returned her eyes to him, but her lips remained a straight line. Nevertheless Tyke went on, “There may be people out there waiting for rescue. Hiding, taking shelter, seeking out other survivors; there may be people out there still alive, my lady. I must find whoever that may be. There must be some. They couldn’t have all burned; I... You have a habitable place; there is space enough, too, for a family or two. Yuyu— I mean, Youmu’s home has plenty more, and food to feed many hungry mouths; but it is far from there, too far... Well, not in a true sense, but still.
“My lady Toyosatomimi, I will go out there,” he announced; “I must. I shall build a beacon marking this place; and should I chance upon any living people, I shall direct them to that beacon. Myself, I’ll search on; then I’ll make for Youmu’s home when I can. We will make preparations; and if we find we lack the adequate facilities, I will do whatever in my power to procure them. One loses the sense of direction out in that waste land – the landmarks seem all gone; but your house is closer an area I have not yet – I don’t think – explored. You needn’t risk your welfare yourself; you need but to be here. I will care for the bulk of the work. I was made for mundane tasks anyway,” he confided with a smile. “Only I ask you, my lady Toyosatomimi: that you take those people under your wing in my absence. Only that you give them feed and a roof for a couple of days. What say you? We may save many souls in the days to come. Those people need your assistance! They won’t survive without your help. What say you, my lady? You will be hailed a hero—!”
His smile cracked like a blade of grass kissed by frost. The goddess stared at him from up on her throne, her face undecipherable.
I must’ve misheard, he rationalised. Surely, he must have...
Her eyes hardened. “I cannot. This is not my fight to fight.”
Tyke went cold.
Miko adjourned his questions with a hand. “You mistake my reasons, Tyke of Gensokyo. I regret the demise of your people, yes; but I confess their disappearance displayed to me the error of my ways. You may have heard of Toyosatomimi Miko, Taoist, maker of the masks, but you know nothing of her. Nor did she, in sooth. That woman was enthused by her release; she had allowed her past to overcloud her true purpose. Yes, too eager was Toyosatomimi Miko to join the power struggles of Gensokyo; but that had been but an echo of her previous life. Tao is the school of separation and introspection. Unlike some, I do not thrive off the slobbering fawning of those below me. I do like being adored, I grant you; but if this adoration comes at the cost of my pursuits...” Miko shook her head. “The ‘prince’ I thought myself, I made a fatal mistake. Yet that is no longer the case. I may not humour your proposal, Tyke of Gensokyo, but it may console you that I am willing all the same to grant you a parting gift.”
Tyke looked at her grimly. “What is that?”
“Memory.” The goddess reclined on her throne. “As I am immortal, time is the least of my enemies; I shall sacrifice it to the Tao here, in my ‘temple,’ with the aid of my apprentices. And if it comes to pass that your kind doesn’t heave itself from its grave... You shall be remembered as one of the last to give. This is my offer, Tyke of Gensokyo. You may take it, or you may leave it; but know this: we may share the same origins, but I am not your ally. Once, I was; but that contagion is since gone. Tao is my mistress now. As she should have from the start... Well, Tyke of Gensokyo? What will you? I may possess all the time in the world, but you...”
The man choked back his choler. I have feared this. So then why does it anger me so?
This... goddess, however showy, clearly had never meant to assist him in his quest; but she was right in one thing, and it burned Tyke to confess it. The day isn’t growing any longer. Where Miko may languish twiddling her toes in her rotten house, his time was far more limited. She had no appointed obligation to share; and though being treated with that urbane amusement seemed belittling in retrospect, Tyke could might help but fault himself the most. To begin with, he hadn’t even been actively trying to seek her out. All of this had been but a lucky happenstance; what right had he to form expectations of this reclusive woman?
With each breath, Tyke observed the indignation vent from his head.
A moment hence, Miko spoke again. “You will take me up then,” she opined knowingly.
“Yes,” said Tyke. “Though it’s regretful that you can’t lend me your hand. We could have done great things—if there is still someone to do great things for.”
“Maybe, yes. All the more... splendour to you, if you manage them alone.”
Was it so, or had he simply imagined it, that when she spoke, an unintended note of longing had snuck in her voice?
Yet she kept her hungers behind a face kept smooth and regal; and even so when she pulled the string of a bell hung beside her seat. A moment hence it rang, the same priestess (or was she a servant?) who had assisted Tyke in the bath loomed in a vacant doorway. The priestess went to her knees, but Miko cut her endeavours short.
“Another time, Kokoro,” she said. “Summon Futo for me. And find her some paper and quills. Go.”
The priestess retreated without a word, and Tyke looked inquiringly to her superior.
“For writing down,” she explained. “‘Memory’ has many shapes – paper one of them.”
A patch of silence stood flat between them. Miko toyed with her fingers, while Tyke itched.
At last, the man might not bear the wait.
“You have mentioned this Futo.”
The goddess showed no surprise. “Yes. You will find her manner... quaint, of that I am certain; but Futo is my good apprentice. She has served me with all of her mind and body. She would murder for me if I pleased it, and... Although I fear she lives closer the outside of her skin than befits her station. All the same she is a good girl – likes compliments, too, same as me. We are of the same earth and salt, indeed...” She produced a nostalgic sigh. “She has been with me since the very beginning. She would never betray me.”
“I seem to have banded myself with noble company.”
“You tease me, Tyke of Gensokyo. I do enjoy being complimented, but I have told you Tao sees little use in flattery.”
“Merely saying what it seems, my lady.”
She laughed. “Oh, you and Futo will get on famously.”
There was a firm knock on one of the doors. Miko waved her playfulness away and assumed a more dignified position.
“Enter!” she called, and the door slid open.
A young woman with the whitest hair he’d ever seen marched into the room. Tyke’s heart all but fled through his throat. Her brow rose at him momentarily; but Tyke smothered his alarmed organ into stillness. This isn’t Youmu. Although I thought from the hair for a moment...
The one called Futo knelt briefly before her master, then asked the reason for her summons.
Miko replied, “You shall accompany this man to the library—” here she motioned at Tyke, “—and record everything he says for my later perusal. That’s everything he says; I shall need his full account. Worry not – he won’t be too long; but I want it all. May I trust you with that, Futo?”
Futo opened her mouth to speak, but then put her fist on her chest and swore, “As you willst, my liege.”
“Will,” her liege insisted. Then she smiled. “You almost had it.”
Futo returned the smile – though hers was a wryer one. “As you... will, my liege.” She beckoned at Tyke. “Follow you me. I shall betake to hearing you post-haste.”
Tyke rose wearily to his feet; he shaped a respectful bow at Miko, then went after the waiting Futo.
When the door clicked shut behind them, Tyke found himself confronted again.
“May I have thy name, my lord?”
Futo’s face was a vigorous little lampion, grey-eyed and full of life. Her white robes were the same as the other priestess’s, but, Tyke noted, slit in places for the ease of movement. Her hands were buried in their spacious sleeves; but Tyke was sure they were light and many-scarred from many misadventures. At last her knees were scabbed and free to breathe below a skirt felt little appropriate for a temple. And hair as white as New Year’s snow.
Tyke liked this girl.
“Tyke,” he said. “Of late Gensokyo... And I’m no lord. A man after too much, it seems.”
“Futo, of clan Mononobe,” she returned. “Also late, methinks. Thou showest in the most opportune time, Tyke partner. I have woken just then. Thou mindest not my familiarity, I hope?”
“I am a common man, Futo.”
“Thou art,” she agreed. “I like that in a man.” She started down the hall at a briskly pace, then half-turned. “Comest thou or not? My Crown Prince master many things sayeth, ‘tis true; but foolish I am not. Thou hast a doozy of a story to tell, hast thou not? Then let us to the library hasten. Mine ears themselves thirst for of the outside words. I tell thee, Tyke partner, these walls naught but unending doldrums are.”
Tyke was not ashamed to smile.
Of everyone – ladies, masters, goddesses – the company of apprentices still suited him best.