because I originally deleted it because it was supposed to become a story, but then it did not become one, but the thread was still deleted, and now no one can read it, and this board is slow anyway, so someone might appreciate the activity, and I am a huge butt face
Tyke spilled on the ground, his luncheon keen to follow in his steps. The inside of his head churned. Tyke was alive. It wasn’t the kind of life he’d have dreamt for himself, splayed the ground, but it beat death by far. Tyke was happy.
Nearby next minute his stomach calmed down, and that was when he clambered back to a semblance of verticality. Straightaway he marked two things. The stairs were the first. Steep, stone-hewn, a thousand strong; they climbed the incline in an unending row. To either side grew cherry trees and tall brush, a green wall.
The second were the ghosts. Tyke had never seen so many ghosts in one place.
◘ ◘ ◘
SOMETHING THE GHOSTS HAD NEVER SEEN
◘ ◘ ◘
SO MANY OF IN ONE PLACE
All around they were sailing lazily on the air, part-translucent tear-shapes of whites and pinks and light blues. A few curious fell in close, coursing round, staring with their eyeless plump ends. Two, three, more. The rest began to take note.
Tyke ignored their attentions in favour of dusting his clothes.
“Does it make an awful jump like this always?” he asked.
The White One gave such a stare as one might a green maid on her wedding night.
“The first time is the worst. You learn to steady for the jerk. It never gave me trouble.”
Tyke snorted. The White One had milk hair like a crone, but none of the kindliness.
“May we?” she wanted of him.
He cast one dismayed look stair-wise and opened his mouth to tease, “No,” but all that came out was a weak “Yes. Let’s.” Tyke was never the best politician, but he knew when to tuck in his tail and clamp up. The White One bobbed her chin in approval.
As carefreely as nothing, with the back of her hand, she brushed the nosiest of the ghosts aside to make way. The others remaining scattered before her bold start up the climb. Tyke hefted his tool-bag, and then went after the bouncing hem of her dress. The dress was green, white, and lace. Lots of lace. Very lady-like.
A playful summer breeze gusted from below. Lots of lace, thought Tyke.
To her back two curved black scabbards were fixed by a lattice of thongs. Wood-carven they were, painted... and empty. That was why Tyke was here. The bags were a constant reminder. This was a job and best kept so. Never mind the sights. The gods had given him this chance to prove his worth, and his worth he would prove. To begin, he would say naught of the lace. That should make for a good start.
The stairs were as relentless as the winter, but even as they ascended, their environs did not change. Trees grew, wind blew, ghosts swirled to sides and up. Tyke felt tedium settling in. He hungered for something else, and not lace. Talk should do. Talk was innocent.
“Your ghost is showing.”
It was. Tyke had seen it before the portal: a faint pale-grey shape, trailing; a wisp of shy lucent smoke. Here it was less shy. Almost solid now: more a puff of cream than a shred of mist. It begged touching, so strange, but Tyke turned a deaf ear. The White One was eying him over the shoulder.
“Your ghost,” he said. “It is showing. Only saying. Not to imply I was ogling; it just isn’t every day that you see a person with their ghost dangling out of their ear.”
The White One became white-red. “‘Out of their ear?’”
“A figure of speech,” said Tyke. “‘It isn’t every day that you see a person with their ghost out and swirling blithely about their body’ doesn’t roll off the tongue as easy. You’ll excuse me if I find myself at a mistake of words. This is everything but everyday occurrence to me. The jump, then these—” he motioned at their ghostly entourage, “—you said naught of these. Weird enough your mistress wouldn’t let you bring the blade to me, and not—”
“My lady Yuyuko knows what she does.”
“Yes.” Of that, he had no doubt. Worse that he didn’t know if he did. “What is this place, again?”
The question was more familiar ground for the girl. She quit wrinkling her Sun-browned face. “Its name is Hakugyokurou,” she reminded the forgetful. “As for what it is, it serves as a realm of afterlife—which should have been plain from the ghosts that so spook you. Some prefer to call it by its foreign name, Tower of White Jade, but for most it’s Hakugyokurou. My lady Yuyuko makes residence here—or, well, permanent one. The ghosts do so, too, until such a time when they are reincarnated.”
“The ghosts don’t stay?” Hope is well and alive. “What do they do here, then?”
“They wait. Make peace. Amuse my lady Yuyuko. This is a...” The White One groped for words. “A waiting room, after a fashion. The spirits of the dead come here to wait their judgement. Then they go.”
“And until that time...”
“I told you just then;” she sighed; “they wait. What do they do? How should I know? They’re little different from you and I. What do you do in your spare time?”
“I’d rather not say.” Tyke was not proud by half of what he did in his spare time. “They’re ghosts, though. That—”
“Changes nothing.” The White One squinted her grass-green eyes. “You’re frightfully snoopy, for a human. So full of questions.”
“Sweetening the time is all. This climb is tedious.”
That it was. Tyke had lost count of the steps; but when he looked on those still before them, they didn’t seem to end just yet. The White One was not in the least impressed, but Tyke had begun to perspire. They went side-by-side to some measure, but it was cool courtesy what held her back, not her legs.
Tyke all but began to lose heart when the maid humoured his desires.
“There is a group that does a specific thing,” she said. “To be clear, there isn’t a set time a spirit waits for reincarnation; it is all the yamas’ decisions. To those skimmed over in first pickings, it may... drag, sometimes for a long time. There is a constant number of spirits in the world. The dead leave their earthly shells and venture to the afterlife, where they await their next incarnation. This is the circle, the eternal round of death, afterlife and rebirth that all spirits are bound to make. They don’t remember those previous lives, of course. That would make a terrible mess of it; but until they are assigned a new body to take down-side, they keep memories of their last one. That’s why they continue sometimes to... live, as it were, as they would have if still alive. That may be why we call it the ‘afterlife.’
“That group I said was ‘doing something,’ now these ones had so grown bored of waiting they settled in rather than wait idly their turn. They’re only a handful, granted; but they set up a community, of a sort, not very far from my lady Yuyuko’s house; and there they declared themselves lords... again, of a sort. The other spirits won’t deign to be lorded over, but those individuals are glad pretending all the same. They hassle my lady Yuyuko for lands and titles, even. Would you believe? All that is only games, of course – they know that as well as we. Still they game away their time in the lines. It’s all very silly; but then, that’s how humans are, more often than not.
“You don’t believe me. That’s all right. You don’t need to. Enough headache that they give me; I don’t need a human stirring them up. You’re here to mend my sword; don’t forget that.”
“Sooner I’ll die,” said Tyke, who had listened to all that without speaking, “and being a spirit seems dull by comparison. To think such earthly entertainments would please ghosts, however...”
“And why not? They’re ghosts of people, not animals nor nothing.”
“They’re dead. One should think after death such things would lose their savour.”
Now The White One laughed. “And whence would the haunting and vengeful spirits come, then? To a ghost earthly things are the most powerful dream. Opposite than to the living, I should think.”
The girl turned her eyes up to the sapphire skies. “Would you not like to be like a ghost?” she said. “To float all day, time your only worry, unfettered by any lowly needs? Death is a small thing. Life is scarier by half.”
“And more tiring,” Tyke added.
“And more tiring,” agreed The White One. “Too full of weeds to be weeded, dust to be dusted, and dishes to be done. Too full of halls to sweep.”
“And stairs,” said Tyke. Too very full of stairs.
“And Sun in the summer. And snow in the winter.” The White One tittered. “Here at least we’re in agreement. The stairs I could live without. There’s the top now.”
The top leapt out at them almost without notice. Tyke glanced back at the stairs they had made, fully convinced there had been more; but when he looked, no step looked much different than the last. Small matter, he decided. The White One overtook him, hopping up the few final stairs apace.
“Come,” she urged him tirelessly from above. “My lady Yuyuko surely awaits us, and life’s too full of waiting.”
And temptations, thought Tyke, certainly not thinking about all the lace.
He pushed his feet up the remaining steps, stopping at the summit. There, in front, a great gate iron-hinged barred the way onward. To its flanks a tall wall spread, its ends lost on sight in the far blue. The gardens of Hakugyokurou were vast and well-guarded. The realm of the dead was green and bathed in summer Sun.
Tyke heaved a flagging breath and turned to look at the world he had left behind.
When the gates groaned shut behind him, that was when he first thought he might have made a mistake. The flagstone path leading to the shrine off in the distance was narrow and scarce trodden, though well-kept. The cherry trees were tall and past bloom and shedding wrinkled pink petals. An overpassing sweep of ghosts painted the sky pale rainbow. All around as far as the eye could see flowers specked the grass; dense bush grew in bunches in the shade, and in their shade, living birds nested and sang their lusty songs. The realm of the dead was everything but faithful to its name.
Still Tyke was unnerved.
This was a new place, and not meant for him, used to the hustle and bustle of the village. There was no-one here, no-one as far as the eye leapt – beside him, the girl and the lace. Youmu, he remembered, her name is Youmu. Youmu Konpaku, server of the dead princess. The half-ghost girl.
“Come right this way,” Youmu Konpaku, the half-ghost girl invited him. “That’s my lady Yuyuko’s house right there. You will find the workshop I mentioned we set up there. Good craftsman? You are wondering something.”
Yes. “When the Sun comes down, will I needs must walk the way down again?”
“No. You will be given quarters in my lady Yuyuko’s guest rooms. There you will sleep, until such a time when you’ve finished work on my sword. This way will be the most convenient for the both of us.” Youmu Konpaku clapped her hands flatly. “Now, let us not dally overmuch; I know my lady Yuyuko grows more impatient by the minute. This will be of further trouble to me if I convince her I was taking my time. Come now.”
And there she was going, heedless of his qualms. So it was that Tyke drove his feet one more dire instance to even with the girl. Whether she hurried so purposefully, or merely did not realise how the climb had worn him, you could not say. Nor would Tyke. The flagstone played beneath her hard-shod clogs, clip-clop, as she marched toward the shrine afar.
“This lady Yuyuko,” Tyke spoke up. “I know of her.”
Youmu Konpaku made a sound that suggested he did everything but. “My lady Yuyuko is lionised. There are many and more tales of her you’d be far wiser not to give the faith they want.”
“Not of you, though.”
“I am her pupil and handmaiden.” Youmu shrugged. “Who concerns themselves with pupils and handmaidens?”
More than you could fathom. “May be you’re right,” Tyke proposed. “Tell me, then: who is this lady Yuyuko, so fabled?”
“A master and benefactor to me. No-one to you. You are here for my sword; do not you let anything else overcloud that. My lady Yuyuko will surely see you; she has a terrific fondness for guests from down below. She will try to frustrate any and all plans we may have made for you; do not fret. That is how my lady Yuyuko is.”
Tyke dared half a smile. “How hardly can I wait to meet her.”
“You’ll humour her, as is only courteous. But you’ll occupy your mind with the sword, you... Tyke, Bastard, or what you’d rather be called.”
“Tyke more oft than not.” He sketched a parody bow. “M’lady White.”
Youmu soured at the name. “White is what you see in the yard after doing laundry. I’m not so made much of like my lady Yuyuko, but I do have a name.”
Yes, thought Tyke. [i]Youmu Konpaku, youkai-blade. Youmu the wind-swift. Some unknowable future later he would take to call her Youmu “the kitten;” but all that he ventured now was, “M’lady of Konpaku.”
That seemed to please her. “It will do. Though it isn’t often that I’m called a lady.”
Much the same could be said of Tyke, but someway he felt the best to keep the titbit to himself. “You speak of laundry,” he said instead; “curious for a ghost to require washing.”
“My lady Yuyuko is a ghost, true,” Youmu conceded in the face of overwhelming facts, “but I am only half-so. I have more or less the same needs as you or any other corporeal being – laundry among them. And food, as well—even if I am told I eat less than a girl my posture ought. I attend my own vegetable garden beside my lady’s. I mislike to leave my lady’s side, I confess. I would sooner not go down to Gensokyo unless I must. You saw how well I coped with your village people. A rack or two of tomatoes and a row of lettuces is small trouble in comparison. They don’t shove, for one. I used to keep a goat, for milk... but she expired some years ago.
“There are also fruit-trees growing out in Hakugyokurou I can go to if I find myself pining for sweetness. Animals, too—but I don’t relish in that kind of thing. As I said, I don’t eat overmuch; what I grow is more than adequate. I don’t like to eat particularly, either.”
No, thought Tyke, but you do like to talk about yourself. He could not fault her. Youmu Konpaku may be certainly less fabled than her lady princess, but she was no less a person, nor a curiosity. And lace. Youmu Konpaku, the lace. It rhymed with “grace.” There was little and less grace in her steps, firm and measured, but what she wanted in that, she made up in lace. It was a good balance overall. “A girl after my own heart,” japed Tyke, “eating so little. Would that I may feed you and not myself. I can scarcely do that with what my forge master pays.”
“You’ll be aptly rewarded, provided you do your job.”
“To my best ability, I shall try, m’lady.”
“Good,” said Youmu Konpaku. “Then do. Here we are now.”
A robed woman perched on the veranda before the shrine’s open doors. At their approach she floated weightlessly to the ground, her sky-blue skirts swishing with every subtle movement. A smile brightened her face: a beautiful young face, ghostly not at all, untouched by a single laughline. A face that paused a man’s heart.
“My lady Yuyuko,” said Youmu, stopping before her master. “I have returned, and successful.”
Lady Yuyuko whished forth, taking her white server by both cheeks, and kissed her full upon the lips. And when she drew away, when she faced to Tyke, and when he feared most she might steal his lips as well, then the dead princess sank to her knees in a bow so humble, so antiquated, almost he felt the ages looking on and hrumming in approval.
“To Hakugyokurou, and to mine own house, I welcome thee.” She had a voice like a silver bell, and deep gemstone eyes to match. “I have the honour to be Yuyuko of Saigyouji, keeper to Hakugyokurou. It is my hope you do not find my house lacking... sir...”
A moment of staggered confusion hence, the craftsman answered, “Tyke. Of... Tykes.” Almost an afterthought, he dropped awkwardly to one knee. “I, er, appreciate your reception, and, uh...”
Lady Yuyuko smiled at his foolishness. “Hush. Say no more... my lord of Tykes. Come, rise now.” Saying that she rose herself. “It has been a long time that we had humans to guest, yes, a very long time. A cup of tea or two mayhaps should be in order. And some biscuits, methinks. Yes, yes, some biscuits should do well. Youmu, if you’ll please.”
“If I may, my lady,” said Youmu. “He is here to work on my sword.”
The dead princess waved a pale hand, dismissive. “A sword is dead matter; it can wait. I, on the flipside – what if I wither away and die?”
“You can’t do that, my lady. You are already dead. With all due respect.”
“Why, you’re right. I am. I’m sorry; you know I tend to forget.” She gave a senseless laugh; but when she looked to Tyke, her brows curled in a silken frown. “She always needs remind me, gods know why. How cold. How so very cold.”
“With all due respect, my lady Yuyuko. I can hear what you’re saying just right.” Youmu Konpaku stamped her foot. “Very well; tea you will have. But then it’s go to work. Isn’t it, my lady Yuyuko?”
The dead princess fanned her palm in front of her white face, all giddy impatience. “Why, yes, my dear Youmu. When-ever did I say it was aught else? Yes, yes, work after tea, why not? Come, my lord of Tykes, indulge this spright’s dead old heart. You’ll find everything to your liking, I am sure. Youmu makes the dreamiest tea—and she isn’t too hard on the eye, either. Why, I could watch her swish her hips around the house all day and never bore. Couldn’t you?”
Youmu twisted her mouth. “Lady Yuyuko!”
Laughing her best, Yuyuko Saigyouji vanished in the shrine’s shadowed doors. Tyke had only to look at her remaining handmaiden to see that she was ill at ease. This turn of events was not unexpected, but little to her liking. Tyke made a face he thought conveyed all his helplessness and more.
Youmu made a resigned grunt following her lady princess indoors. The lace swished most interestingly, but Tyke paid at most half the due heed.
He did not want to anger her.
He did not know it then, but when the world ended, Youmu, the half-ghost girl, would be the closest to a living human for many scorched miles. That alone would have made it trouble, if even so much as his presence made her go up in flames.
I’m sorry, was that in bad taste?
You’ll have to forgive me.
We haven’t reached that part yet.
Nor did Tyke imagine we ever would.
Yes, he was rather innocent of it. None of us saw the world ending so soon, least of all Tyke.
>26. THE TYKE 27. THE WHITE MOP 28. THE WHITER MOP
26. THE TYKE
The wind had ceased.
The torrent had snapped and vanished, and the choking ash-clouds with it. A wide space spread suddenly to all sides: a great field of tall golden wheat, and a glistening gravel road snaking away across it to a building afar. The sky was again a pristine azure blue. The air was clear, clear at last; and from high above blessed warmth rained down, like the world had not known in weeks. The world was bright and clean.
Tyke collapsed on the ground and started retching.
◘ ◘ ◘
THE SIZE OF BREAKFAST
◘ ◘ ◘
TYKE HAD EATEN THAT MORNING Too large.
When he had relinquished what precious sustenance he’d had, he clambered to a shaky uprightness.
The wind had ceased. But still the golden fields around him swayed with careless abandon.
A disc of brilliant light that could only be the Sun was stamped on the clean blue sky, but its bearings were all wrong – its face, too wide. To be sure Tyke remembered taking no steps in this realm (but for the short fall), yet when he looked back the gravelly road wove and wove through the fields, rounding off over the horizon. The hills looked no more familiar than the mess he’d left on the ground; nor was the road itself overmuch resembling what he remembered. This wasn’t the burned world he had left behind. This world was new, bright. Strange. Alive.
And who is to say how much more dangerous.
Tyke felt his head go faint from the heat. A hand went up to his face, only to come away smeared in black soot. And on his clothes was the soot, and in their pockets and crinkles, and grey ash flaked from his hair when he shook it. The filth was everywhere. He’d coughed what he could of it out right then, but the taste was far from gone from his mouth. Tyke crushed out the urge to wonder what had made this ash with a will. Whatever it had been, it was only ash now. That needed to do. Had to.
Uncoiling the protective scarfs and rags, Tyke started upward the hill where the building weathered in this hot new Sun. As he made through the peculiarly animate field, the same queer sensation began creeping afresh up the back of his neck. A sense of displacement: a geographical vertigo, where his very sense of direction mutinied against the sight before his eyes. A minute had passed before Tyke placed this feeling that was not unacquainted with him. And why should it be? Almost I slung my cat each time Youmu pulled me into Hakugyoukurou. There was nothing it was if not an intimate sensation now. Yet how? How did it come it happened again? And here of all places?
Tyke plucked his last memories before the ash-storm had taken his vision and balance out of his confused brain. The dry, grey-white waste land had been utterly still; but between one second and the next wind had picked up, whipping up ponderous billows of ash and dust. Tyke remembered reeling when it had rammed furiously into his side, all but taking him with it; and he shivered recalling how within a scant moment his nose and throat had been clogged with throttling flakes of scorched matter. He remembered: how he was flung face-forward into the thick blanket of ash which covered the ground... And that last flash of anger: that last, utterly helpless flicker of remorse as the storm clamped down on him, when he thought it the end. And something very, very embarrassing... Was it me who touched this place in my desperate throes then? doubted Tyke. Or had he merely been drawn through? Yet whoever the creator of this... sanctuary world, he thought not to come out and meet with the visitor. Tyke resolved best he exercise his guest’s right disregardless. The building was close now.
As he cautiously approached, the disequilibrial feeling ceded to a more natural fear of unknown. Although fit for an entire clan and then some, the house vouchsafed no denizen at the door. No, not a house, Tyke decided. A temple. That’s what it must be. There are lampions hung from the rafters. These ribbons must be wards against evil. And look, here are the same carvings as with... A stab of loss cut short his comparisons. Here, yes here was a place as which had once stood outside his village: a safe haven for men and youkai. And what a joyous place it had been, come every second end-of-the-week...
The front door let him through with not a stop. The interior turned out cool despite the heat without, cool and lined with oaken panels on the floor and walls. An alcove in the vestibule gave him hope in the form of rows of identical twine-and-wooden sandals. Tyke stripped off his ash-caked boots and inched past the silent entryway, tip-toeing. The hallway beyond returned only silence when he gave a call of, “Ho, ‘ello!,” abashed by this necessary skip of manners. Tyke tiptoed onward.
The nearest turning took him down a passageway scored with dozens of doors on each side; but however quiet, Tyke heard not a sound beyond any of the doors. A reminder of an old rebuke stayed him from grasping at one of them to check for a surety these rooms were empty; Youmu had gone to great lengths to disabuse him of such inadvisable ideas. Youmu had taught him the danger. Youmu Konpaku, youkai-blade. Youmu, the wind-swift. Youmu, the kitten, mused Tyke. What is she doing now?
Past the following corner was a wider hall of considerable height. Here, too, the temple-ness of the place was plenty in evidence; pillows for sitting lay arranged in circles on the polished floor, in the centre of each a tri-bellied kalian with painted runes. At the far end of the chamber, upon a rise, a pillow-throne stood vigil, glittering and empty. Around it in a ring of statuettes of bizarre and exotic gods were watching, studded with bright jewels. Above the throne, from an iron hook, an ornate jian hung point-down, its pommel a golden crown. The air savoured faintly of vanilla.
All of this Tyke absorbed with a stupefied sense of awe. To be sure the residence of Youmu’s lady, Yuyuko, had been fashioned after a shrine as well; but however venerable its ghostly mistress, this place outshined her house by half. What kind of face would she wear if she heard me now? wondered Tyke, stepping over the pillows toward the throne. Yet terribly missing was something in this house, or temple, and that was its god himself. Cowed by his own daring Tyke climbed onto the rise, careful not to tip over any of the jewelled, little gods. Hard-pressed he would be to believe the man-sized seat was meant for one of their group. Man-sized... and inclined, the try-detective noted. That means they must have sat in it not long ago. I wonder if it’s warm...
But was it? Tyke never found out; for engaged as he was there stole upon him the muffled shuffling of feet. On he went spinning round, all but falling off the edge of the podium. A long-haired woman clad in priestly clothes looked upon him with a face full of mystery; beyond her, an open doorway yawed in a wall, where Tyke had not bothered to look.
For a short space of time he was quiet; but before long a gut-wrenching panic descended upon him in full force.
“Ah, er...” His tongue shrivelled up in his mouth like a raisin. What am I supposed to say? “This here... I stumbled in... I—I did not mean...!”
The woman gave his stutterings a pass. She looked stiffly from him to the floor, then to him again. Tyke took the hint. She watched in unbendable silence as he scrambled off the rise. Tyke lifted his chin and met her gaze, despite his cheeks growing hot. I know that I’d be mad if I succeeded at catching someone fondling my throne, he reasoned, but I am scarcely in the wrong here. She must understand.
So she did. Hardly had Tyke opened his mouth to continue his confession when the priestess’s own lips parted with a rusty difficulty.
She did not release it easily, but when she did, she had a timid, but modulated voice.
“Wait. Here... please.”
Her feet made a rustling hiss as she whirled around to vanish in the same doorway whence she had stolen upon Tyke so surreptitiously.
Unable any longer to conserve his composure, Tyke fell back flat on his buttocks. Whatever just happened, I am still a man and not a frog. And alive. This much gladdened him immensely. When one was Tyke, one gladdened from the simplest of things.
The priestess had said to wait, and so Tyke had, long enough for his mind to come up with a few names for the unforthcoming woman. But here he was starting on another when her robes whished into view, and she walked in carrying a bowl and a towel. She halted before him and Tyke caught the soapy scent of a cleaning concoction.
“I am to accommodate you,” she announced with not a hint to hang on. “Follow... me, please.”
And she turned right round and went into her secret corridor again, waiting not for the dazed man.
Tyke leapt to his feet and fell in with her before she was lost in the shadowed corridors. Whatever fate awaited him after, at the least he would not meet it bedaubed in dirt.
And, he had to confess, though it was very far from friendly, it was heartening to see a human face again.
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.
The house had never been so quiet as when she stalked its halls now, hands prickling.
The floor squeaked beneath her feet with what was like to be the highest purity a floor of its kind might see. How many times had she mopped it now? But it was the only pastime which she found yet absorbed her mind; whatever else she tried met with her thoughts wandering toward that irritable subject. Training was out of the question; her sword felt an entirely alien thing missing the tip, and she feared flustering her hard-sculpted balance. So she paced around the house, twice and thrice and three times thrice. She walked the halls. She made a survey of the rooms. She sat beside her untouched breakfast in the kitchen and tried to read a book, but she hadn’t two pages past when she realised she didn’t know what she was reading.
An open window loomed before her in the hallway. She leant on the sill and stole a look outside at the ghosts crowding the afternoon sky. This isn’t something I’ll quick get used to, she marked for the dozenth time today. There were so many. Their varicoloured mass was so dense it muffled the sound of the wind. Once, she had attempted a tally, but to count this many was an exercise in impossibility. And each is a human died... She had been long inured to the sight of ghosts, but such a mass filled her heart with chill.
An especial curious one drifted close, drawn by the movement.
Youmu Konpaku sighed her irritation. “I am thinking of a number between one and get out. Take your pick.”
The ghost did.
Youmu watched it float away. Then she closed the window and resumed her patrol of the house.
A month had passed since the great fire which had reduced the world outside Hakugyokurou to dead cinders. A month since my lady has confined herself to her chambers, unable to bear the “voices.” Youmu had tried her doors this morning, but her only reply had been the sound of silence. The same as the day before. For a month her sole company had been a certain upstart novice from the village below. Where was he now? What had he found in that dead wasteland that had held him so long? And what if it isn’t as dead as we had assumed...? Youmu Konpaku shook her head. To excruciate that now was as senseless as counting the damnable ghosts. She had shown him how to enter her home. Any minute now he would stride in coated in dirt and bad jokes. Any minute now...
No. He’ll return any time he feels he’s done what he could. The man was nothing if not a monument to thoroughness, so it was natural he took his time. Youmu Konpaku relaxed her fists. She forced her thoughts back to her mistress.
The princess Yuyuko had been the first to sense its aftermath. Whatever it were. They had been passing the evening over some tea (Yuyuko had always persisted they did at the day’s end) when the dead princess let her cup sail to the floor where it shattered to a thousand pieces. She curled up over the broken shards, screaming and covering her ears. Youmu aided her to her chambers, hoping anxiously the next morrow would make it but a bad dream, but her mistress barely opened her doors in the morning.
“No,” she murmured. “No tea, I told you, my head hurts most awfully.”
That had been the last Youmu had seen of her warden, less a moan or the frantic whishing of covers behind the locked doors. She must look a wretched thing, Youmu mused. A bag under each eye and weak as a kitten...
A kitten. Youmu puckered her lips.
Why does he call me that? Youmu was ostensibly not a cat, and certainly didn’t think herself notably kittenish; nor had she ever made particular pretence of it. The most mystifying was how she’d never thought to upbraid him for it when it happened. Youmu Konpaku was not a woman who shied from naming what upset her; how had this thing eluded her so far? Well, he isn’t overly pushy about it for starters. The name might have been designed to titillate her, but it was a tame sort of titillating. Youmu did not mind letting it slip.
A groan escaped her mouth. If you must think about him all the time, at least think of something positive. How she had met him, for one. A hot midsummer day it was; Youmu had tottered on the edge of melting for hours before she’d found him. The village square was packed, and too many of the shoppers (vendors too) had more pressing things to mind than this tiny girl with her dress like summer grass. The man was hammering away at a twisted iron candelabrum, his sinewy arms glistening with sweat. The smoke from his stall was stinging her eyes, but here was her final chance. Youmu was nervous. And how could I not? All the other smiths had laughed me away when I conditioned they would must come with me for the sword. One had even the bile to lash out at her for thinking him “domestic help.” All but one; because he was merely an apprentice, he saw it as a chance to prove himself to take on my request.
Youmu sighed. Look how that’s turned out.
The man had asked a day to prepare, then he would come with her.
“Ask for me in the barracks and I should be ready,” he had said.
“What do they call you?” Youmu had inquired.
“Tyke. Bastard. The like.”
“That won’t do.”
“Yes, ‘twill,” he’d insisted. “Ask for those and they’ll know.”
They had showed her to two Tykes and another Bastard before she’d got the right one.
How did we ever take off? Youmu wondered even now, passing by the door to his bedroom. We were of two worlds. He, a lowly novice to a lowlier smith, and I – the server to a princess of a thousand years. And yet they had. So much. Almost Youmu wondered if she hadn’t walked right into one of those fairy tales Yuyuko had oft cited to her when she had been but an upstart child. The climax of this one had come the night before the last, when she and the man had sat in the kitchen unto late, late night, discussing his planned incursion into his destroyed world. The topic was heavy, but bound to come up soon or late.
Youmu remembered his face, so fraught with worry.
“Youmu,” he had said. “If I don’t return...”
And then he’d trailed off.
“What is it?” Youmu had asked.
“Nothing,” the man had asserted, but the pink mounting in his cheeks gave the lie to his words.
Then he’d called the close of the meeting and repaired to his room for the night. He’d denied her further talk.
The thing he hadn’t considered was Youmu was not a fool. She understood what it was had given him such a hard time saying. She knew what he had wanted.
And I would have done it, she maintained inside. Youmu Konpaku was not the biggest girl the world had seen, maybe not, and for certain not the strongest; but she could shoulder responsibility like any other. She was sixty years if she was one, and a woman schooled; she knew all there was to know of such matters. To oblige him would have been nothing. A piece of cake. A trifle.
So then why was a simple kiss bothering her now?
Yes, it was such a trivial thing that refused to let go of her mind that day. Youmu bit her tongue in consternation.
As he had chosen the coward’s way the night before, Youmu had purposed to recoup for it the morning that followed. The smith had risen with the Sun, and had spent the earliest hours collecting cloths and rags around the house; when she woke, Youmu had found him sleepless, sorting his findings in the kitchen. After they had broken a (rather hefty) fast she had escorted him to the gates of Hakugyokurou, where the man had dallied at some length inspecting the gear and the costume he had fashioned out of thick layers of clothes.
And that was when Youmu had attacked.
“Lean down for me for a moment,” she told him.
The man looked from his checking, confused. “What for?”
“I will kiss you.”
His eyes went as wide as saucers, but quickly he regained his poise. As well he tried to make light of the situation.
“Well, a lady’s favour might be just so, I suppose—”
“Look, you want me to kiss you or not?”
That shut him up.
A moment yet he stalled, but then coughed and requested: “Close your eyes.”
Youmu blinked. “Why?”
“I’ll look better that way,” he japed humourlessly. “Close them. You can do that much for me.”
Youmu saw precious little reason not to. Youmu saw very little in the following minutes.
When finally she had opened them again after what seemed an eternity and a half, he was short of breath and redder than a beet. Then again, Youmu doubted she was otherwise.
Torn betwixt hurrying him along and begging him to stay, the server girl watched reticently as the novice ensured the last of his equipment were in order. She felt a maidenish urge to wipe her mouth of the moisture he had left there, but curbed it under a will that was as set as it was ashamed. At last the man hefted his pack of tools and rations, bid her a hasty good-bye, and fled down the scorch-marked stairs which led to the “slip” leading to Gensokyo.
That had been yesterday.
Youmu had stopped to sit in one of the two chairs left in the house’s dining room.
The entire previous hour she had sat there reminiscing of all those things she had firmly decided she would not. Why hasn’t he come back yet? she asked herself helplessly. There was no answer. No, there is, she corrected. More than one. A lot of answers. None of which I will accept.
The senseless longing to go chase after him reared its ugly head again; but Youmu stomped it staunchly into a retreat. Tyke himself had said that he must be the one to go. That she must remain here in Hakugyokurou – because... Because he may not return. Because I have a mistress to look after. A place to care for. An obligation to the world if he “doesn’t make it.” Youmu chewed on that last phrase. Her mouth soured. There is no way he “won’t make it,” she thought stubbornly. Not a way. Not with the kiss we had. “A lady’s favour,” he had called it. “A favour” only scratched the surface of it. A mere favour wouldn’t have kept her awake through the night. A favour wouldn’t have left her pining for more. A favour was a trifle. This wasn’t.
The chair rattled under a personful of frustration.
Youmu stormed out of the dining room on itching feet. There was one place she still hadn’t cleaned. The small smithy she had tacked of old equipment from the basement at Yuyuko’s orders. The princess would not permit for the sword to leave Hakugyokurou “wounded,” so she’d had her server arrange for a live-in smith. There was naught for Youmu to do but yield and see to this ludicrous idea. And now I’m missing this stupid smith I was so averse to at the start. Youmu was embarrassed at her own fickleness.
Tyke would fly into a rage if he found someone had upset the order of what he had come to call his smithy, but Youmu was sure she was more than equal to whatever rage the self-effacing man might produce. The smithy pleaded for cleaning, and the smithy she would clean. A fool might construe that it would give him second thoughts the next time he planned for a dangerous trip, but Youmu had never thought herself especially foolish.
The trouble was, she wasn’t sure she shouldn’t start to.
There weren’t many things which terrified Futo. From her earliest years she had witnessed the bloody familial schisms of her ilke. At Shigisan she had seen her clansmen’s ranks shattered by the footmen of Soga, yet fear had not gripped her. At her Crown Prince master’s behest she had accepted her very soul to be torn from her chest... but her last memories were of serenity. A millennium she had lain lifeless (yet not dead) beside her Crown Prince master in her crypt, but the darkness did not scare her. She stomached the worst of earthquakes with a set. She misliked a bad storm, but did not dread it. She apprehended her friend Tojiko’s cookery, but not with a fear; especially big spiders gave her a start, but that did not count for terror.
Futo leafed once more through the report she and the ex-Gensokyan had composed for her master’s pleasure.
Her longhand glared at her from the lined pages: his indited account on the unfathomable wildfire and the waste land he had since the fire began searching. The man had departed some hours earlier – to that very search resume; since then, Futo had been alone with the record. There were some hours still before she must present to the Crown Prince; her master stood a grave strain on her powers to sustain her magical home – strain she must “sleep off,” to hear her tell it. Too long my Crown Prince master these days sleeps, Futo had thought once; but what freedom Miko’s slumber had allowed her she cherished. Tojiko was of another mind, but Tojiko understood little enough; flesh is needed for rest – something Tojiko no longer had. For the rest of Miko’s servants, Futo cared little. Sycophants and lickspittles; blood fresh as the morning bread. Which of them had survived in the safety of Miko’s seat had given their lives wholesale to the Tao. Futo silently despised every one.
Mayhaps that is why I with that man so well connected. Futo shuffled among her papers.
The ex-Gensokyan proved a fine diversion from the monotony of the temple; very reluctant, but no more once Futo had hinted of her lenity for the mean and mundane. Awhile before work they had gossiped of low matters; the man had found Futo’s remembrances of the old signally intriguing.
“Ah, I wit these puissant tragedies,” she had chuckled after hearkening to his turbulent acquaintance with a certain Youmu (whom in turn she wist not). “Simpler it all were in my days. A man caught wanton with a maid firstly was to get her with a child made...”
“Oh?” The man had pricked up his ears.
“... Then swith gelded.”
Futo grinned at the memory of his grimace.
Then we down to work came. The mad had drawn the line for merriment at work.
Small wonder, too. Futo had viewed the destruction first-hand when her master had ordered her to scout outside; but even then she had thought it local at most. To think the entire world had been lost to the flames... And howbeit I read these words, so humble, that seemeth the dreadful sooth. Futo scratched her knee in chagrin. The scab she had got exploring the dusty attic of the house stung and tore away. Futo smacked her tongue; then she licked a finger and rubbed it in the tender flesh exposed. The pain merely riled her more.
The world was dead. And here she squatted in the safety of her master’s powers, idle.
A millennium I have served, Futo pondered moodily, for this?
A full minute had slid by on a snail’s foot before she realised what she had thought. Futo kneaded her throbbing temples.
To nurse such thoughts betrayal to my Crown Prince is, she reminded herself. Tao was the way of contemplation and detachment; outside distractions played no part in it. Miko had been right denying the man her hand; Tao forbade such selfless gestures. The sole fashion they might weather this circumstance was through patience and meditation. That was the way of the Tao. The Crown Prince had done no wrong...
... Yet if the world was no more, and its people were no more, what worth had there remained in the Tao? Futo looked down at her report and saw none. And her anger rose, rose. The man’s visit had thrown her into a dither. Futo sucked in her air with a hiss. A millennium I have served, she thought. For my master’s ends I have my life and blood sacrificed. At Miko’s pleasure she had stolen, deceived, bribed and murdered. The Crown Prince had rewarded her well. Immortality – but at what price? And, her heart whispered, what use now in a world that had perished? A useless life, in a world which had died. This was to be the payment for her bondage?
All the years she had withstood of vassalage, all the blood on her hands; all the ignominies she had suffered – delivered unto but these ends: first immortality, then through it enlightenment. Now that she had the first, though, did she care for the second? The continued thraldom seemed no worse than the stalemate she now endured – but would it sustain her? Self-doubt washed over her like cold sweat. A millennium I have served. Would she waste those years confessing now it did not concern her after all? And what would the Crown Prince have to say of it? All those years spent prisoner to her master’s will – only to end now like this? And whatever hath vanquished Gensokyo – is out there still. Would she dare face it at her master’s side? The better if they would strike first – but the Crown Prince had ordained inaction. The decree ate away at her even now. Yet what otherwise was there to do? To know alone that something commanded that kind of power clenched the Taoist’s chest with dread. To challenge it was potential suicide. To cower here whenas the world decayeth outside – madness. Futo was willing to put her life on the scales if it meant breaking this deadlock; but the Crown Prince would not suffer it. The Crown Prince would not scratch a buttock if it meant “interfering” with the world. The Crown Prince had ordered her to stay put. The Crown Prince would never let her go. The Crown Prince would sit her throne and conduct her servants unto the end of times. Futo grit her teeth.
The fear, the wroth, the conflict, all began mingling in her pulsing head; and out of the sea of chaos, a new emotion crawled like a snake: even more frightening, one she had not tasted in a thousand years.
... And slowly, slowly, Futo began to understand what it was she was about to do.
The milk-haired girl gathered the sheets into a pile and laid it down on the table, carefully... like a woman who didn’t entirely know how to do so. The sweat on her hands wet the thick pages. A millennium I have served. The library’s door seemed so far away suddenly. Futo swallowed; a knot rose up in her throat. My body and soul, both I gave to my Crown Prince master. A thousand years I have been her second, her shadow and dagger – her friend and consort. We have bested death itself together. A millennium I have served...
... And yet what hath it me availed?
The answer pushed from her lips. The Crown Prince had given her nothing. Nothing but an empty immortality, a maddening confinement, and stagnation she was loath to endure for one more minute. A millennium she had served, and yet the Crown Prince...
... The Crown Prince had given her nothing.
All her doubts shattered like a pane of windowglass. It was then that she knew what it was which must be done.
The library returned to its normal size as she heaved herself up from her brooding. And none too soon.
The whilom disciple of Toyosatomimi Miko stood and padded for the door. The unknowing Crown Prince was asleep yet; if ever she had a chance to escape, it was now. The other servants would not stop her. As Miko’s second, she enjoyed the deference of those younger followers of her master than she. Or had enjoyed. Miko would doubtless surmise her rebellion before long; and if a shred had remained there of her mortal self, these privileges, too, would go. A chase, as well, was like to follow. The Crown Prince with a grudge was not unlike a bailiff with a debtor. Futo had seen what a hound her master made when provoked.
She had murdered in her master’s service, though. Shall I then murder the Crown Prince also ahead I flee? The door inched open, and Futo peered her head through to scan the hallways. Nay, she decided, slipping into the vacant shadows; I mislike to leave an unburnt bridge after myself, but to hazard so smacketh of folly. Still, something must be done. The inevitable pursuit had to be deterred someway, or leastwise disheartened. I shall have need of some sort of boon, Futo realised. An edge over my master...
An edge. A sword.
Her heart thrilled in the darkness at the insolence she was about to perpetuate.
Smiling like she hadn’t in centuries, the scab-kneed turncloak directed her steps toward the throne room.
✥✥✥ HERE ENDS THIS PART OF Gensokyo Delenda Est ✥✥✥
“You abandoned your master?” Youmu was shocked. “To a simple whim?” The white-haired Taoist grinned. “It is hight treachery, Youmu partner. It worketh very well.” Tyke weathered the server girl’s glare. Things were about to get much more heated in Hakugyokurou.
And with that, my monster hunters, I have depleted the more developed parts of my notes for this story. There were some themes pushed in there despite being originally separate (for obvious reasons), and some I made up as I began work on these scenes. I had also intended for Futo’s chapter to be entirely in OE grammar, but I figured that would detract from reading (and boy, would it). A few of the notes I have not found a way to use here (such as the big reveal or the major plot twists), but some of them you may or may not find interesting all the same. Among them:
✥ An utterly terrified Flandre who thinks it was her who destroyed the world ✥ A Miko tasked with taking charge of Flandre; her first notion is to seal her power and file down her fangs ✥ A society of highborn ghosts who clearly have not noticed the end of the world ✥ A fundamental theory for each major magic element of Gensokyo ✥ The problems of Youmu’s sheltered upbringing ✥ A visit to Yuuka’s sunflower field; it involves singing ✥ A brief chapter for Aya entitled: “A Murder of Crows;” its contents consist of these two sentences: “Aya Shameimaru thought she saw a moving shape on the ground far below. Aya Shameimaru thought she must have imagined it.” ✥ Fancy asterisks for every break. Every. God. Damn. Break. ✥ A great many instances of the word “one.” After the protagonists’ names, this is the most common word I seem to use.
You’ll want to dig up those disgruntled reaction images. Meanwhile, I’ve got a Rathian to hunt.
>>1063 I’m afraid I cannot let you do that, Dave. I’ve nothing against dropping light romance/SoL shorts from time to time, as these are pure joy to write, but this kind of story... At the present time I am simply incapable of commitment an enterprise like this would require of me. We’d be looking at a weekly update schedule at best, and, at that pace, a story of this scale would take years. Years I’m not willing to give to it. >>1065 Fallout Gensokyo? The author of which conceived somehow soap would make for good lubrication? I take offence. I do not make mistakes like that. I know my lubrication very well.
He had her in the sixth stride from the portal. She had him in the eighth second of freefall, and the fifty third hour of the world’s end.
YOUMU KONPAKU COULD not sleep.
She was sleepy, that much was certain in her mind; but she shelved the thought of shutting her eyes for a few seconds before it might root. Youmu Konpaku could not sleep. It was not that she did not want to; nor did she lack for facilities appropriate for such an endeavour. All the same, Youmu Konpaku kneaded her swollen eyelids with the knuckles of her hands, wiping the oncoming surge of tiredness away. This was not the proper time to sleep. She had thought as much yesterday as well, but she was stupid then; now she saw the error in skipping her yesterday’s rest in its fullness. She could have been more conscious now, fresher. But that was past, and Youmu had better things to mind than her own want of foresight.
She could not sleep tonight.
Youmu Konpaku fished a small towel out of the bucket of cold water where it’d been soaking, and wrung it out. Then, she set it gently across the sleeping man’s forehead.
The ache in her temples and the gum under her eyelids might say otherwise, but this was the one truth the swordswoman would not concede.
She could not sleep, and that was absolute.
Commissar Yaffykins, Hero of THP!foOlREAVlE2015/02/17 (Tue) 22:46No. 1823▼
HE HAD BEEN at search for more than forty eight hours. Two days, tens of kilometres, dozens of disappointments, more than a hundred curses – some of which so vile he was shamed to recall. Two days; a little long to spend on a search with no aim nor direction, but he had been driven by an urge which could not be quelled. Too hard had the peace of Hakugyokurou grated on his mind. So he had wrapped his body in rags and his heart in indignation; so he had gone out to the waste land – to soothe his wounded spirit perhaps, or to satisfy his duty to the world. He did not know in the end. He did not want to know anymore.
The world had changed in one month. Too much. Entire forests had vanished, burnt out of existence, and the cataclysmic winds had taken the wet, ashy paste which remained, filling out the land’s many cavities with its volume. New hills had risen from the dead residue, and valleys had disappeared where there had been terrifying drops before. How deep, then? How deep were those homes and workshops now, those eateries and stores he knew had once been there – under how many metres of that choking mass? The thought they might not – that they might be gone as the forests now were – had nagged at him like a broken toenail. But he had held on to hope. Whatever broken one it was.
Then, Tyke woke up. And for the first time in two overlong days, he smelt something else than air laden with smoke.
A pale, morning Sun was knifing into the chamber between the sliding paper walls, casting the straw-mat floor in a wedge of bright, jasmine light. The colour of straw was filling that morning. From the light of the Sun, till the room where he woke... Only there, nestled upon his chest, was a mop of hair the shade of shadowed milk. Or ash, realised Tyke, before a violent shiver broke the gruesome thought.
But it smelt of anything but ash, and Tyke felt a wash of calm take away the frights of the last two days as he petted the second-whitest head of hair he knew. Afterwards he climbed to a sit, a small towel falling away from his forehead in the process, and the man laid his caretaker’s head where his had lain moments before. Then, on he rose, to a head-churning verticality, and looked without the quieted chamber. Wiping a sheet of moisture from his brow, he emerged into the beckoning light.
Once, he might have been mesmerised by the sight – now, all he made was the best effort not to peer skyward: at the varicoloured body of ghosts crowding over the ever-green fields of Hakugyokurou. Wherever he did look, however, the greenery of the dead princess’s realm made a cruel mockery of the desolation he had suffered over the previous days. Yes, he allowed himself the bitter admission. Here was a place untouched by the destruction which had taken the world he had once called “home.” The Sun shone in a scorching summer glare that could not pierce the ash-choked skies outside. An unguarded moment saw Tyke raise his face toward the warmth, only through the closing of his eyes sparing him the count of the ghosts. Who knew which of them belonged to ones he might have once known and loved? To look upon them so soon would but open the wound deep within his breast. So he thanked that unguarded moment, for allowing him at least this much.
Yet the moment had a different plan.
All at once, a thunderclap tore the morning silence. Tyke’s eyes flew open in a start, and just in time to witness something in the air: a stain of shadow on the sky, high above... And falling! There was another thunderclap; and the space above the shadow closed, in a crackle of green energies which Tyke painfully recalled from the day he had seen the realm’s magic barrier wrest against the advance of the great fire. The energies dissipated into the surrounding air, leaving but the plummeting shadow and its quickly resolving shape. Too quickly.
“Oh, bother!” Tyke cried out, throwing himself out of the shadow’s path – only he didn’t say “bother,” and whatever he did was lost in the thundering crash that jolted the earth as the falling object rammed into it with rock-splitting force.
The man rose to a hacking half-crouch, enveloped in a dust-cloud raised by the thing’s tumultuous landing. Slowly, a hand over the mouth, he stood, squinting toward what he estimated the centre of the impact. Something did the same beyond the curtain of dust, rising and coughing, patting down its clothes... Their clothes. For then a breeze kissed the murk away, and Tyke saw what stood in the middle of the pool-sized crater punched into princess Yuyuko’s gardens: a person. A human.
A woman, Tyke marked through the confusion stifling his thoughts. Tall she wasn’t (but then mayhaps the fall had compressed her someway), but untouched – but for the scabs on the knees viewable beneath a skirt too short to match the priestly upper half of the outfit. At her flank bounced the length of a Sun-pommelled jian, blade naked, its flat slapping against her thighs as she snapped about, ascertaining her whereabouts. And finally, when her gaze met Tyke’s, balanced on the edge of the crater, her wind-swept hair was of the whitest white he had ever seen. A touch dirty now, but whitest all the same.
The big grey eyes lit up.
And she flew forward with the call, smashing into the smith, arms outstretched. The sixteen-pointed pommel of the sword jabbed into Tyke’s stomach as she clamped her hands around his back, pushing her ash-specked face in his sleeping clothes. The pain, it was – surely. The pain must have woken him up.
“Now I want to hear that again,” said Youmu, “and in terms that won’t leave my hair standing on the ends.”
And so Futo began recounting her tale in entirely different terms, causing no small measure of outraged standing.
Ten seconds hadn’t past when Tyke fell into a retrospective spell. As Futo spoke, her animated voice rousing the long-now-silent air of the house, the smith allowed her words to skim the surface of his mind – instead, he focused his attention on Youmu, and thought on the events which preceded their seating in the dining room to listen to the new arrival’s story. Youmu of now, he noted dimly, was scowling. Youmu of then had not been quite so restrained in her expressions.
As the dust of Futo’s descent had carried away, so had the sound of her landing; it hadn’t been long when the swordswoman stormed out into the open, her sleep-deprived eyes scanning for whatever danger had given the noise which woke her. And find it she had: a woman, whom she had never met, her hands locked about the man she had but recently won back from the previous misadventure. And at arms.
A golden sword hung loosely from her hip. Seeing it, Youmu’s own hand snapped behind her back – but, finding the sheaths of her own swords missing (the swords themselves still recovering in the smith’s private workshop), all it did was form a tight fist. A moment came and went when she looked all but about to charge the stranger with no additional weapon but that; yet, for all her sleep-deprived dullness, Youmu was not yet at the end of her wits.
She ripped the belt out of her lower clothes, and charged the newcomer with that.
A round of scuffling briefly ensued, with Youmu restraining the other girl with her preternatural reflexes, only for Futo to wriggle out somewise an instance after, until, slammed to the ground yet again by the unrelenting swordswoman, the Taoist suddenly began resigning her last meal – all over the front of Youmu’s dress. A somewhat chaotic minute later, Tyke had regained composure enough to break up the (now substantially weakened) fight and propose a sort of truce: they give up their – anyway senseless – bout, and he is spared the sight of two otherwise sensible girls rolling around in the dirt.
Youmu nodded. “Very well,” she said, her mouth still twisted in understandable disgust. “For now.”
Futo, too, made an assenting gurgle, and Tyke’s heart went out to the girl who, same as he apparently, had suffered from the throat-choking climate outside Hakugyokurou.
She had, too, as they found after sitting together in the kitchen to forge a much-needed understanding. Youmu had wasted no time switching to a presentable set of clothes, and before the quarter was out, Futo had told them about her betrayal of her hitherto liege. Hearing it, Youmu had been shocked.
“You abandoned your master?” she’d asked. “To a simple whim?”
The white-haired (now decidedly greyer) Taoist had grinned. “It is hight treachery, Youmu partner,” she’d explained. “It worketh very well.”
Tyke remembered weathering a heavy stare from Youmu, on some insidious level just knowing things were only going to become more complicated from here on out.
The most puzzling of all had been Futo’s method of finding the dead princess’s safe haven. Youmu especially had been keen on knowing how the Taoist had managed to penetrate the pocket-dimensional barriers of the place. The feat, if Tyke’s experiences were telling, was not every day achieved, and if Youmu’s insistence was to be given due speculation, neither should it. How then had Futo managed to enter this realm?
At being this asked, the Taoist had turned instead to Tyke, seated, tacit and thoughtful beside the swordswoman, and smiled.
“I did thy life-force sense, Tyke partner,” she’d said, “and the force of thy resolve.” Seeing both of the faces before her pulled in twin frowns, Futo had shrugged, as if to say, “It doth be Tao. Thou mayest very like not understand.”
The questioning had ended on that note, which was when Youmu had insisted on the rewording she felt the entire story was in dire requirement of. She listened now, hairs bristling, to the same tale, no doubt deciding in her mind whether to kick this self-proclaimed traitor out to the wolves, or to kick her out to said wolves even sooner.
Tyke exhaled the tension from his chest. Youmu would never do something so rash, self-asserted treason or otherwise. He knew her. He had known her for at the very least a month and a half, and if there was something to say for Youmu the kitten, it was that she wasn’t wont to acting on silly emotional impulses. Here was the stripe of girl who, sooner than granting a man the paltry right to touch her hands in a greeting, would first deliberate the morality of doing so over a period of an awkwardly-greeted fortnight. And even if, one fine morning, she would kiss the very same man all of a sudden – and full on the lips at that – it could not have been before a very serious inner resolution. That is even if the kiss did appear somewhat fervent on the outside.
Sensing a fever of its own rising in his cheeks, Tyke cast a panicked glance at the girls with him at the table. To his relief, neither appeared to notice his momentary slip of colouration. Youmu, for reasons most guessable, was glaring down at the nakedness of the jian laid between her and the Taoist on the table top like an announcement of secession. Futo had offered an explication of the sword’s presence at her side the last time it had been mentioned, but it wasn’t such an explication as spoke to either Tyke or Youmu. The smith, most of all, had brought the weapon’s significance down in his thoughts to the doubtful sensibility of having spikes on a bloody pommel. Whatever else the sword symbolised in Futo’s possession was a secondary issue. The Taoist was fingering the naked blade as she continued her retelling of the story. As she did, a glimmer of some deeper mystery played in her mischievous grey eyes, but it was lost on the smith.
At length it was Youmu who stopped her before she might finish.
“I’ve heard enough,” she said, lifting a hand. Sooner than Futo might ask what marks she got this time, the swordswoman tugged on one of Tyke’s sleeves, jarring him to attention. “So?” she asked. “What’s your take? Shall we believe her?”
A startled “We?” blundered out of his mouth before the man thought better. Of course it’s we, he chastised himself. We are the only people for miles after all. He drew a slow breath, and said, “I believe her, if that’s what you mean. Let me explain. I haven’t had the chance to tell you myself, but she told the truth just then. We’ve spoken before. Me and her... master, too.” He looked briefly toward Futo, but the Taoist kept stroking the sword’s blade without comment. “I believe her at any rate,” he said again, feeling vulnerable under Youmu’s green-eyed scrutiny, “more so if she defied her master’s orders to come all the way out here. I’ve no reason not to believe, is what I mean. That’s my take. What is yours?”
Youmu folded her arms, all but about to launch into a fierce chain of “Well!”s and “I, for one, personally!”s by the looks of it, but the ageless words stuck in her young throat. What came out instead through the gap which was left was only a deep sigh. At last, she, too, relaxed her shoulders, and admitted defeat.
“I’ll believe her then,” she decided. “If you do, then I will, too.”
The smith made a mental note of the future tense. “That makes me a glad man.”
Or does it, he thought, even as Youmu graced the attempt at levity with one of those polite smiles she had. The slight swordswoman faced the newcomer and stood, drawing on an air of diplomatic civility. “We don’t need to be introduced again, I don’t suppose,” she said, bowing. “Still. I apologise for my lacking my lady Yuyuko’s flair for ritual, but all the same, I welcome thee.” Her tone mimicked that of her mistress from when she had first received Tyke. “To Hakugyokurou, and... mine own house. It is a hope of mine you do not find it lacking.”
Sensing familiar ground, Futo rose as well, unable to hide her relish. “And I do thy welcome humbly receive!” she replied, also bowing. “Thy house doth awesome be, and fully doth become thy status. Truly unworthy am I, daughter of the late Mononobe, to dirty its landings. A thousand fold my apologies, and my thanks also.”
Youmu cocked her head to the side, raising a brow at the smith as if to ask, “Is this creature pulling my leg?”
Tyke shrugged in response, as if to say, “About twenty-five to my eye.”
At once he felt they might have missed each other halfway, but Youmu took the answer nonetheless. The newly- (and self-) designated master of Hakugyokurou eyed her newest guest from dishevelled head to toe, wrinkling her nose critically. A moment’s indecision, and finally she offered the Taoist a visit in the house’s baths.
“Can’t have those landings dirtied,” she argued, sketching a helpless shrug, and Tyke wondered whether she was taking after someone he did not know.
Futo’s face brightened under the dirt. “Very good! Masters of Haku-Gyoku doth handsomely generous be!”
Youmu’s cheek twitched. “Actually,” she said, her voice suddenly strained, “you may show the lady the way. I’ll see what we can do about fixing up some quarters.”
Knowing no other “you” remained nearby but he, Tyke gave a nod.
Youmu took her leave, swishing her hips out of the room as she had often when lady Yuyuko had still comprised most of Tyke’s company in her realm. Alone now, with but the fragrant presence of Futo beside him, Tyke allowed his entire upper half to sag.
The smith twisted around, finding the white-haired betrayer staring up at him innocently. “Futo...”
“What doth thy thoughts bother?”
He hesitated, fearing the answer he might get, yet ultimately deciding it more important than his fears.
“You...” he began again, “... are, physically, about twenty-five, aren’t you?”
To admit she was piqued would have flown in the face of everything she should by rights feel as a host.
But she was piqued. And admitting that came easier than untwining the many thoughts she would have to otherwise in order not to burst in a shower of nettles. Youmu Konpaku was piqued. She ascertained so much again spreading an aged futon on the floor of the room her newest guest would, if Lady Luck were watching, not sleep in tonight. She dispelled the thought as soon as straightening from the task, with a grimace. Lady Luck favoured those who prayed and believed in her. Youmu Konpaku believed in other gods at the moment. Sleep and Rest, and Hard Training, and Honest Sweating Work – but Sleep and Rest most of all. She could do with the two’s blessings now.
A cavernous yawn rolled out of her mouth.
Youmu rubbed at her puffy eyelids, feeling her indignation smoulder persistently in the pit of her stomach. The air of the room was clean, infuriatingly clean – a testament to her seething impatience in the previous days. The swordswoman cursed that impatience now. Had she reined the damnable thing in then, she might have released her current anger on whatever hapless motes of dust happened in her way now. But there were no dust motes, and Youmu – an irony of such self-making she had to laugh – wished the new arrival had crashed in the middle of the house rather than beside it just so she had something to wipe away. The traitor’s face, if Lady Luck were noting.
To Futo’s unwitting fortune, Lady Luck must have burned together with the world outside.
Youmu was vexed – with herself as much as any other white-haired woman. A smarter part of her persisted she should be glad – for anyone surviving in the wake of the fire was a windfall – but inside the quarter she had spent picking and, come to terms with her duties, preparing the room for the arrived one, she’d had time enough to consider a more immature angle. She shook her head. These were silly, jealous thoughts. The bigger picture, to be sure, counted for more. Though fruitless at first, the smith’s search had now proven at least one pocket of life remained in the desolation. A tad selfish a pocket, if Futo’s story were to be taken as truth, as well as Tyke’s own interjections; but for all its selfishness, it remained a spot of hope in both the smith’s and her own minds. And now, with Futo’s defection from the thrall of whom she mockingly referred to as her “Crown Prince master,” perhaps more open also. The news, however piquantly delivered, was heartening. Might be, within the following weeks, the searches would yield another miracle.
Might be, they would see another human face yet.
Youmu tasted of the prospect, wondering if it would fill her with as much unexplained ire as the last two arrivals had. Maybe, she thought, maybe my sword-arm isn’t the only thing in need of training.
The sound of a voice whipped her around, the training of her sword-arm swinging it behind her back, to her misplaced sheaths.
She sucked her teeth in quiet self-admonishment, even as her instincts unloosed their hold. There was nothing to surprise at! The one snuck into the room where she had been brooding was only the truant smith. Only him. Youmu could not help but smile as she recognised how true her reaction had been. That’s right. From here on, she must expect someone else just as well. The thought made her palms itch all anew.
Tyke returned the smile, mistakenly thinking it meant for him. Youmu did not mind.
“So?” he pressed. “What’s with the artful bed?”
Youmu followed his gaze to the honestly unusual beddings she had made for her – for their – newest guest. “Ah,” she said. “The futon. I had to roll one up in lieu of pillows. There weren’t any in the closet or storehouse; most have been stashed in my... in my lady Yuyuko’s chambers.” She endured a sting of pain at remembering her locked-away mistress. “I know nothing about the disciples of Tao, but even I appreciate something to lay my head on whilst I sleep.”
He agreed, nodding sagely at the universal truth behind her words. Then he slumped against a wall, and wearily slid to the floor.
Youmu cocked her head to the side. “What’s wrong?”
The man turned up his face, as if testing the ground, before an answer came out. “Futo insisted on furnishing me with some additional information.”
“In the bath, yes?” To her own surprise, Youmu was beyond further shock. “What did she tell you?”
“I wasn’t in the bath; I stood outside.”
“That’s fine. What did she say?”
“She... throttled my hopes, after a fashion. About her helping out.”
“She isn’t going to help out, then?” Youmu’s fingers splayed out and twitched for something to grip. “After all that show?”
The smith’s eyes widened in alarm. “No! Goodness. No, that’s not what I meant. She is going to help. Only she said... She said we would ‘must perform it the old-moded way.’ The air outside, see – it’s too obscure from smoke and ash and what have you; she said flying was ‘out of the question.’ She was adamant. We will have to walk – as I had to,” he added, gloomily.
“Are you telling me she walked here? Then how came she fell from—”
“Ah! Here’s the comedy!” Tyke chuckled against the set of his own jaw. “She tells me she jumped.”
“Jumped?” Youmu thought about it, but her fatigued mind offered nothing but foolishness. “What do you mean, jumped?”
“Jumped! Like, hop!” The smith described a tall, parabolic arc in the air. “You can’t stay long up there in the sky, she says, what with the murk and all, but you can’t make good time on the ground, either. So she had to launch herself upward, like so—” here he motioned again, “—then rely on the only force she could to pull her down – and to the ground. And then again, and again. She was in a hurry, to hear her tell it. Must’ve hit a shard somewhere high up at some point.”
“A ‘shard?’” Youmu’s head ached. “What shard?”
“Of this – wossname?” Tyke groped for words. “This pocket realm? Hakugyokurou, I mean. That’s what the woman Miko called it. The rudiments are the same, apparently. Any big enough shard may be used as an entrance. And if Futo was leaping about blindly like a panicked rabbit, well...” He let her imagination complete the picture. “Thank Lady Luck she missed the house by a bunch.”
Youmu Konpaku forced the corners of her lips to quirk up. “Yes. Thank her indeed.”
The smith gave a laugh, though Youmu felt it more for her merit than any real amusement he might have found in her reply.
He began speaking again, soon. On how he would proceed with the search from here perhaps; perhaps on how he would have this Futo comb the land for anything else might turn up another life; Youmu did not listen. She glanced one last time over the beddings she had made, patted them down, and then, deeming them at the highest possible point of adequacy, faced to the man engrossed in resolving his plans to no one in particular by one of the chamber’s walls. Still deaf to his talking, she spurred her feet toward one final effort.
The talking cracked – then broke completely – when the exhausted girl sank into the man’s embrace, seating herself astride him and burying her face in the front of his clothes. There was a sharp intake of breath she felt underneath her, yes there was, and a less than composed exclamation of her name, but Youmu cared not for any of it at this time. The smith’s body was warm. Not the feverish warmth of sickness she had tended to last night at his side; nor the autumnal emanation of her lady’s semi-corporeal form. This was healthy warmth. The sticky, bodily, slightly fragrant warmth of a living human being. Youmu could not believe that a human may be this warm.
What she could believe even less was how good it felt. She gave into the sensation, her eyes closing all on their own.
“Youmu?” The smith’s voice was faltering. “I don’t know that this is, you know, proper...”
Youmu Konpaku wrenched up an arm to pinch her living pillow. “We kissed,” she reminded him. “This is nothing. A trifle.”
“Ouch! That’s... well, true. But even a kitten shouldn’t—”
The swordswoman made a weak groan. “I hate when you call me that. I do not meow.”
“Right. Youmu, then.”
“What do I call you, then?” Tyke complained. “Lady White? My mistress Konpaku? Or another name yet? I liked ‘kitten.’”
Youmu could no more muster any concern for the issue. She changed the topic. “I cleaned up your workshop, you know.”
Once more she felt the man suck in a breath. Then, in a peculiarly feeling series of shakes, she heard him give a helpless chuckle.
“Oh, I feared this,” he laughed. “I knew this would happen. I should have locked the door!”
“Yes... You should have.”
“I’ll hold onto that thought.”
“Mm.” Youmu sensed her hold on the world slipping as it grew ever heavier. She allowed the words pushing at her lips to spill between them. “You...”
“Yes, my Lady White?”
“Will you...” She swallowed. “Will you at least... think twice... next time?”
The reply came as though from behind a silent waterfall.
“No. I don’t think I will.”
She could have been heartbroken, Youmu Konpaku noted herself musing. She could have launched into a bloody rage. She could have struck him for toying with her feelings, or at the very least pinched him again. She could have done many things.
She didn’t. There was no more left of that in Youmu Konpaku. The world may burn all over again for all the matter it made to her now. The pull of exhaustion was too great; the compulsion to simply let go – too strong. She wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest. She wanted to sleep.
Yet most importantly, before the last of her awareness was overwhelmed, Youmu Konpaku wanted to know.
Almost from a dream, a sigh presaged the answer. “Because I must,” it said. “If anyone survives out there, I must find them. If anyone lives still – I must bring them in. Even if I should never stop looking. Even if it consumes my own life in the process. The world may be dead, but hope is yet at work. That’s why I must go out there, Youmu. Even if... Even if I must ignore that I, you know, love you.”
The smith held fast, silent, braced for the inevitable retort.
A long minute ground by, and no retort issued.
At long last, Tyke dared look downward on Youmu’s inert body. The swordswoman was absolutely still, but for the nigh-imperceptible, cadenced rising and falling of her chest. She was fast asleep.
Tyke released the air he had been holding prisoner in a low hiss. Then he leant his head against the panelled wall, strength seeping from his limbs by the moment. With a resigned bid to futility he wove his fingers through the second-whitest, but certainly the loveliest mop of hair he had seen in his short life.
“Well,” he murmured, petting. “Here’s hoping my eyes are sharper than my sense of timing.”
>>1836 Would you shut the fuck up about that already? Jesus Christ, I'm sick of that retarded pair of words. Do you even know what that means? SHUT UP. THERE'S NOTHING HERE THAT QUALIFIES AS PURPLE PROSE. EVEN BALISTA'S SHITTY LONG-WINDED WRITING ISN'T REALLY PURPLE PROSE. STOP SAYING IT. I'm convinced there's only one idiot that keeps mentioning this, and it's you.
Anyway, damn. I don't even remember what the hell this short is about other than the post-apocalypse, I'm gonna have to reread it.
MONONOBE FUTO WAS smiling as she removed her hand from the tiled bathroom floor.
Though it wasn’t its artistry which prompted the turncoat Taoist’s delight. Gorgeous, that it was – beautifully laid and arranged in a pleasing chequered pattern; yet the reason for her smile was more prosaic by half. Satisfaction. The spell gave out and, with a final sputter, sucked its tendrils back inside the flesh of her fingertips. Futo righted up. The childlike expression of thrill never cracking, she kneaded at the numbed skin of her forearm, even as the unseen workings beneath rearranged themselves to accommodate the returning power. The pain of long disuse splitting and parting barely registered in her mind.
All that did was the ease with which her body remembered its forgotten properties.
The man Tyke had been the most polite in refusing to come in and demonstrate how to operate the strange machinery of the bath’s appliances. Still, his plain-worded explanations soon resulted in the Taoist splashing around in a tub full of refreshingly scalding water.
While it had been filling, Futo in turn had filled the smith in on matters she had deemed too sensitive for the ears of the white-haired maiden who had assaulted her with a belt in the house’s ruined courtyard. To his credit, he had been impressively understanding. And mine own intuition did once again hold, Futo thought, contented, as she sank once more up to the chin in the soapy, milky blend broiling in the tub. The floral scent agreed with her senses, long unhabituated to the simple pleasures of bathing. The Taoist recalled the Spartan facilities of her whilom master’s retreat. Cold, icy water, and each splash did a pump of the pump require. How was a woman to enjoy herself when her arms ached before she even rinsed the grey soap from her hair? Tojiko had oft dismissed these complaints as vain, but Tojiko understood little enough. Her Crown Prince husband less still.
Mononobe Futo sprinkled her palms with a roseate concoction from one of the bottles standing by the tub, and rubbed it into the skin of her scalp. Tojiko would have murdered to be in her place, had she known the effect it may have on her spouse’s stiff bedchamber manner. For a moment, Futo wondered what effect it would have on Tyke, when she came to him smelling like the one whom he loved, and the vision pushed such a wide grin onto her lips she herself was left surprised. Humour had been an alien thing in Miko’s all-hearing wake; even now, Futo felt a ghost of shame at thinking such immature thoughts. She shook her dripping head. Japery does not a fool make, had said once one of Miko’s newer disciples – memorably moments afore the Crown Prince forbade any further planting of frogs in her meals on pain of becoming the next frog used in just such a manner. A couple months after, Futo, for no reason but endless boredom, would attempt a similar prank, only to be stopped by the very same disciple, now fully inducted into Miko’s service, quoting at her passages from the Crown Prince’s holy teachings. Futo would then let the frog fly in the lickspittle’s face instead, afore stamping off to nurse her shattered mood someplace wanting in such killjoys.
Afore much too long, no such place remained under Toyosatomimi’s wing. The Crown Prince would temper her servants well. And Futo would hate her master for it.
Hate. How readily the word came now, away from Miko’s spying ears. Futo repeated it once and twice and thrice again, basking in the delicious treachery of its sound. The freedom to give the voice of her heart the release it had so long been denied was elating. Here, beyond the burned, wasted world outside, was a place where she may listen to her own sentiments above that of her master’s. Here, without the bounds of the Crown Prince’s blessed influence, was a place where she may be loyal to herself rather than another. Here, between the dimensions, was a place where she may, did she but desire it, place as many frogs in as many places as she pleased. Caught between this and the sultry water of the bath, the ageless woman could not have wished for more.
If she had indeed died in her Crown Prince’s thrall, here at last was her long-awaited afterlife.
A space of quiet half-hour she had lain, soaking in the warmth, pondering idly (and not a little foolishly) how the lamps embedded in the ceiling burned without scorching the surrounding wood, before she had had her fill. Now, clean of all traces of the old, destroyed world, she set out to build a new one of her own.
Sitting on the edge of the tub, naked but for the capelet of her own white hair, Futo once again bent over and touched the wet bathroom floor. There was no incantation to the spell – no verse or runic gesture – only the dull nudging of power through flesh made tender and wrinkly by moisture. The Taoist visualised ribbons of colourful energy streaking outward from her hand, snaking along the familiar geometric shapes of the floor, up the vertical ridges of the panelled walls, and finally the flat plane of the ceiling. They did not meet in its centre – a fact which soured the overall marks – but Futo decided it matterless at any rate. Carefully, as though handling a sleeping babe, Futo retracted the energies she had siphoned from the bathroom’s harmonious architecture, allowing a wire-frame to emboss itself in the surface of her memory. Then, the shape still clear behind her closed eyes, she focussed the spell into an imaginary spearhead.
The blade crackled once before asserting its intended form. Then it launched, keen as a tracking hound, through the sole door exiting the room.
Whoever had designed the house had been a genius.
Futo may not help a sigh of admiration as her spell loped on all but by itself – the familiar, repeating angles and spatial conventions providing excellent channels for its travel. All at once she was peering again into those textbooks on Qi which had consumed much of her yet-mortal life – so much, in fact, she had been overripe by the time the Soga family had absorbed her into its ranks. So much, she had spent her very first wedding rankling at her husband’s disharmonic attire, rather than paying attention to the ceremony – especially the closing part. The memory made her face grow hotter than she found comfortable, and Futo pushed it away.
All the while, her sorcery was – in the absence of a better term – working its magic, automatically seeking out matching patterns and shapes in the house’s make-up, mapping them out in Futo’s consciousness. There, in something of a focal point, it found the kitchen which had been the place of her questioning. There, branching out in an arterial fashion, were in turn the hallways by way of which she had been led to the bath where she still was. There, farther on, in the eastern reaches of the house, were several bedrooms, one of which with unmistakeable earmarks of a craftsman’s mind, and beside – a featureless room which answered Futo’s poking with crystalline resonance of forged metal. A prim distance away she found an orderly chamber, where two beings that were one had stamped their lifelong mark. And there, just opposite of it—
Futo blanched as a sepulchral chill assaulted her mind’s senses. The room lay in chaos. Something stirred at its core, brushing against the threads of her awareness, but the Taoist fell back before the thing awoke to her presence.
What now have I discovered? surprised Futo; yet there was little sense, yes little sense indeed, in lingering overlong on what she may well investigate in the earnest at a later time. And one no longer naked, she marked as well, afore driving her influence westward, toward those reaches of the house which he had not as yet haunted. Almost at once her spell crashed against a part of the building with its order recently irritated; and Futo, glad of the discovery, leant in to peer closer.
And recoiled just as soon – with the stripe of surprise she would have thought herself above.
Turning away her metaphysical gaze, the Taoist merely permitted her consciousness to wash along the bounds of the room, taking in the vaguest shape and naught in excess. Then she left, the twain presences within the room undisturbed in their intimate moment. To yet another shock, Futo found herself abashed. So its head yet another thing reareth which I must hereon beware. Here a sour laugh echoed in her thoughts. This shall entertaining be, if aught.
The spell faded into gossamer quality, and Futo allowed it to slip between her fingers as her corporeal senses reconfirmed themselves over the abruptly switched feedback.
With a touch of regret she found her shoulders and back had cooled dramatically during her survey. As matters pertaining to the body were the pinnacle of Tao doctrine, however, Futo paid her respects by plunging just so bodily backwards into the tub. Water exploded, showering the walls and floor – then once more, when the Taoist came up snorting and spraying around with rapid shakes of her head. She would have laughed.
Would have. For then, something caught her ancient eyes.
The bathroom’s door stood wide open, and in its mouth hunched an emaciated figure in blue. Futo’s mind leapt to the lady’s name Yuyuko, frequent in the humble smith’s account; but as her eyes slid downward the deathlike interloper, all retrospection ground to a halt in the white Taoist’s head.
There, clutched in skeletal fingers, was the jewelled handle of a golden sword.
Where she had feared but one, now it seemed two masters had come to her capture.
✥✥✥ HERE ENDS THIS PART OF Gensokyo Delenda Est ✥✥✥
Tojiko was thunderous, which was little aught to write about as phantoms were thunderous always in her experience. “What is that oaf thinking?!” she shrieked, punctuating the question with another servitor rendered cramping violently on the floor. Miko removed her foot from the man’s vicinity. When Tojiko raged, she occasionally struck the same target twice, and the goddess had no reason to assume drool was any less conductive than most other liquids.
>>1841 And yet that's all she wrote (if my resumed silence and the bold HERE ENDS weren't telling enough). I hope whoever, let's say, commissioned this is satisfied, and once again I apologise for taking so long to wrap it up. With this out of the way, I don't think anything else remains to be said.