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✱ MU ✱
MONONOBE FUTO WAS wonderful.
The yard by the western wing of the temple – usually quiet – was this morning busy in profusion. On the neatly swept grounds, in a wide circle, acolytes in novice robes were crowded, peeking over one another’s shoulders at a small, spry woman pacing and speechifying in their middle. Scrawled all around her in the dirt lay the likeness of the temple itself: its floor plan with walls, chambers and places of focus marked – rendered with shocking accuracy by the Crown Prince’s aide herself. Each time the grey-haired (yet little wizened) master of the Tao brushed close this or that side of the circle, the novices shrank, muttering. Not at all unreasonably. For, in her small hand, Futo of the late Mononobe clan, Lord Tashi’s confidante, held something impossible:
A mass of churning flames, confined to the shape of a fist-size orb.
“—Thereby,” Futo was cheerfully explaining, “whenas thou to a focal point nearest, yon Feng doth its influence expand. Heed ye!”
The master Taoist, whom most every acolyte outmatched in height by a third, shoved the fiery orb out over a square on the ground standing in for the Crown Prince’s inner sanctum. The orb swelled: the blaze within whipped into a frenzy by an unseen, ethereal wind. An awed murmur crept across the group.
“But lo—” Futo twirled about, arms wide and full of melodrama. Novices nearest by winced away. “Near thou a place elsewise…” Here, Futo hovered the orb above the temple’s communal bedrooms. “… And Shui doth again ravenous come. Heed ye!”
Her students did heed, even as the orb appeared to wrinkle and die down. A few relieved sighs could be heard, let fly from under noses disinclined to scalding. A few of those attained the master Taoist’s ears.
Mononobe Futo smiled.
Then, casually, she slashed at them with the arm bearing the orb.
Novices bowled over each other to duck out of the way of the fiery projectile… which, in reality had never at all been released from Futo’s grip. Those who had dived, of course, had only after they had knocked themselves and others close by to the ground to realise the fact.
Mononobe Futo bent over.
Then, she sniggered. Then, began to laugh.
The tricked acolytes picked themselves up from the yard’s dirt. But, even so, a handful cracked sheepish smiles of their own. There was no spite in Mononobe Futo’s laugh. No ill-will. No slight. Only an explosion of joy at a prank struck perhaps a little truer than intended.
Wiping at her face with a hand, Futo span at those of her listeners who had been spared her fiery sense of humour. They blanched when her bright, roguish eyes took them in; yet, all that the little master of the Tao did was resume her lecture on mysterious Feng and Shui. As though a full quarter of her flock hadn’t just been floored.
One could easily love Mononobe Futo.
Here, after all, was a soul who never hid anything. Here was a woman who lived on such an extreme outside of her skin, there seemed little underneath except more Futo. Any emotion felt by her painted upfront on her face and coloured her demeanour. Any action taken – any word said, joke pulled – came of nothing else but who and what she was.
And, there was nothing Mononobe Futo was that was not Mononobe Futo.
Those on the sharp ends of said jokes, as well, did recognise this much. These were only jokes. Humorous asides to her not-always-humorous work. A manifestation of Futo’s Futo-ness.
Wonderful. This was the word. Such poise. Such confidence.
Such well-anchored legwork when she flared the orb… and whirled in the direction of the temple’s balcony.
The fire ruptured its shell with a roar. Novices threw themselves down in earnest as a miniature Sun blazed past their heads: screaming toward a figure eavesdropping on the lecture from up on the shaded platform. The listener, jostled out of their distraction, forged a quick, sloppy gesture with their palms. Quick enough… but plenty sloppy.
The spinning fire-ball crashed into the ward, sawing like a wheel on a loose axle. For an illusive moment, it seemed as though a wild beast: snapping its jaws, attempting with great ferocity to devour the figure whole.
Then, as if by some divine miracle, the fire-ball gave a throb. It twitched. It twinged. It recoiled as if stung, and – sharply – veered away from its prey. Novices gaped after it as it sailed, fantastically, first over the temple’s roof, and then up into the perpetual blue of the Sen-kai’s sky.
Once they quit squinting, and looked back to who had routed it, they saw a man. A simple, unremarkable man: with a shaven head and Taoist robes – so like their own – and steadied: feet out wide, one palm ahead the other in a warding sign. Gaze ahead, scanning for danger. A picture of a warrior-monk.
… Less, perhaps, the flames eating at the coloured edges of his sleeves.
The priest jumped, flailing his arms. Almost like Futo did sometimes, when seized in enthusiasm.
All the stares in the yard (even the priest’s) snapped back to the little master Taoist.
Arms propped on her slight hips, Mononobe Futo stood, seeming – for the first time that day and some before – genuinely upset. Her grey eyes focussed on the watcher atop the balcony – like little torches threatening to re-light his clothes. Her somewhat copious brows joined above her nose into an even more copious V.
The priest ceased flapping. He began to sweat, instead.
“… Ye—Yes, master Futo?” he coughed.
Futo stamped a clog-encased foot. “Handai Mu!” she called a third time. “You art – correct me should I you wrong – ready initiated in Feng and Shui. Art not you?”
The priest bowed. “Yes,” he confirmed. “Yes, master Futo. So I am.”
“Then what!” demanded Futo, “What, pray, mightst you yourself avail by on young cadets spying?”
“With respect, master Futo,” the priest corrected. “I was spying on you.”
The little master of the Tao paused. Then, within a blink, she regained her poise.
“Ere aught else,” she huffed, “your of address mode! You art of rank to mine similar. But one ‘master’ doth these walls rule – and I am not she. You will me with accord to our peerage call. Yes, Mu brother?”
Acolytes as one glanced to the unremarkable priest’s (now faintly blackened) sleeves; and there, indeed, were the three colours of rank. Yellow, green and red, going outward. All missing was Futo’s final blue. Their own, red sleeves, were mean in comparison.
Abashed, or unaccustomed to such scrutiny, the priest tugged the outmost, white layer of his robes over the markings. “… Yes,” he said at length. “Yes. Apologies. It is as you propose, sister Futo.”
This noticeably mellowed the master Taoist, who frowned on for a heartbeat or two, mostly on principle. Then, she melted into a fond smile. Still, belonging to Futo, this as well was ahead long filled with more of herself.
“Ah, perchance I too soon spake,” she announced; “perchance there yet a lesson herein is.” She swivelled on a heel at the staggered novices. “Mightst ye venture,” she asked them, “what error Mu brother there did misfortunately make?”
A numb moment, and the initiates straightened to attention.
“… Used Feng against Feng, instead of Shui?” one hazarded.
Futo gave them a magnanimous nod. “Thou an aright thought makest,” she granted. “Howbeit, alack… Only forby truth.”
Flames licked out and swirled to form a new orb above her outstretched hand. Futo carried it to the section of her drawing reflecting Handai Mu’s vantage. The fire picked up current, the same it had from the Crown Prince’s chambers. A place of Feng.
Her students, fear forgotten to curiosity, drew closer about the little master as she proceeded to explain in a sagely manner why, then, her “brother” had drawn on Wind when surprised, which had fed the fire at first – rather than the opposite Water.
Overhead, in the balcony’s shadow, Handai Mu leaned on the scorched railing.
Mhm, he thought. I could easily love her.
A warm, lazy afternoon was glazing over the Taoist temple in Toyosatomimi Miko’s hidden Sen-kai. The Sun… which was not the Sun, but another trim in the Crown Prince’s ethereal weave… glared from on high, unimpeded by a single cloud. It was never cloudy in Miko’s Sen-kai. Never cold. Not outside of those rare days when she slipped in her control over the realm, and a touch of the outside weather slid in through the cracks. The Crown Prince, it was whispered in less public quarters, simply thought the full illumination of sunlight to foster a like enlightenment within. Mu thought these whispers simple… but passed them on, for no reason but their simpleness gratified him.
As he was gazing out over the rolling, golden fields with encompassed Toyosatomimi Miko’s temple palace, another impossibility loomed at the fringe of his awareness.
Above the temple’s roof, high in the tepid air, a lone, greenish cloud swam languidly out onto the otherwise unblemished sky. Though, once more… not a cloud, but something else yet, which the Crown Prince had brought into this dreamlike space. A person, this time… of a sort. A dead sort, to be rude on mark – even if the person herself made it an open display.
As a ghost, the Crown Prince’s wife… at least in his – or her – previous life (the details were confusing and Miko’s public secret)… Soga Tojiko enjoyed few pleasures but for the most basic. Many an afternoon she whiled away, basking in the warmth of her husband’s manufactured Sun. The afternoons she did not, she followed the Crown Prince around – giving any new recruit to the Tao a nasty start.
Mu liked Tojiko. Not as deeply as he liked (and admired) Futo; but the woman was more than capable of being pleasant – when one found a topic of conversation pertinent to a ghost. She was, in honesty, a dear and mannered soul… even if her moods could be a touch abrupt. The same way a sea was a touch wet.
The orb, Mu figured. The orb must have drawn her out. Even with Futo about, it was seldom that fire-balls were randomly arcing through the Sen-kai’s sky. The ghost lady might have been curious. Or furious; both were equally like.
Mu skewed an ear down, where Futo was rounding off her lecture with twice the flair it was warranted. He tapped his knuckles on the burnt railing, musing. Another gaggle of neophytes was already waiting instruction in the temple’s main hall; Mu himself had guided them in. Afterwards, daily ceremonies at Miko’s side would keep the little Taoist booked until evening. If Mu wanted her to himself (which he did), it had to be now.
So, he waited, tapping, as the acolytes below filed in twos and threes back indoors. Some did so plainly footnoting to each other what they had been told; some marched wrapped in cloaks of their own thoughts. Those, Handai Mu suspected, would flee within the week. Toyosatomimi Miko’s power and radiance seduced many; few withstood the expectation behind them. Ally to this Futo’s overwhelming passion, the thundering of Tojiko and the solitariness of Miko’s handful of elevated servants, and the turn-out for the Taoist temple attached to Gensokyo was – in a word – miserable.
Though, if the Crown Prince was bothered any by this truth, it was not bother enough to shift her benchmark.
Mu heaved himself upright once the doors below shut behind the last of the novices. Futo dusted her hands, sides, butt… before her grey eyes turned up once more at her spying brother. A smile tugged the corners of her mouth.
And then – impossibly – Mononobe Futo jumped.
The single leap conveyed the petite Taoist from the temple yard – seven metres down – up to the other side of the Mu-occupied stretch of railing. Futo clung on, vising the fingers of one hand around the singed wood. At the same time, she extended the remaining one to Mu. The priest grasped it, hauling the small woman, up and over, onto the balcony. Truthfully, Futo’s legs would happily have carried her that bit farther on their own. There were not too many things Futo’s legs couldn’t do. But, the Crown Prince’s aide relished in baiting these moments of camaraderie out of those she liked. Mu didn’t hold it against her.
He did hold her hand, though, a little longer than Futo softly pulling it away.
Futo, being Futo, made a naughty face ahead stepping back. “Well?” she asked, arms folded. “What thinkest you?”
Mu cocked his head. He joined his newly recoloured sleeves at his stomach. “Of?”
“Those.” The little Taoist thumped a heel on the balcony’s floor. “Whereof else?”
The redsleeves, Mu translated to himself. “Half won’t last the week,” he opined. “Half again won’t see their greens.”
Futo nodded. It wasn’t a cruel gesture, not even sad; but Mu could sense the pity. “I’ll fain any who stay groom,” she admitted; “mayhaps whichsoever my Crown Prince master’s eyne captureth. But I nowise hope for this lot have.” She shrugged away her own damning criticism. “Well, marry that,” she decided. “Somedeal more importunately… Mu brother?”
Mu raised a brow. “Sister Futo?”
Futo raised both of hers in an adorably askance scowl. “I you to address me with respect before the cadets asked,” she told him. “Nay to grovel. Our Taishi Lord doth solely mastery over this domain command. I am no one’s master but this body and soul’s. Nor yours. We,” she reminded, “almost of rank are. Are not we?”
“We are,” Mu agreed.
“And friends,” added Futo.
“I rather like you, yes.”
“And I, you. So, do not my like harder make. Will you, Mu brother?”
The priest bowed an obeisance. “I have had trouble addressing… people to their satisfaction since I wound up in this place. I recognise my failing and mean to amend it… someday.”
He unrolled from his bow. Futo was rolling her eyes.
“Your failing, Mu,” she moaned, “that you your puissant qualities beneath yon daredevilry hidest is.”
Mu hesitated. “… I thought you liked it?”
“Oh, soothly,” Futo allowed. “It hath its childish charm. And I do so children love.”
“… Is that what I am to you?”
The little Taoist smiled. “I a rank yet above you am. No? Now—” She bucked Mu’s forging retort by swishing closer. “What hath you so morose gotten?”
It was exceedingly easy, ribbing Futo, to forget the woman was keen as well as wonderful. Not without cause had the Crown Prince designed for Futo to collocate with her into this new era; not without cause was Futo, even now, the sword of Toyosatomimi Miko. The daily repartee and excitement of her second youth veiled well that Futo of the late Mononobe clan had bloomed and aged in ancient court. Observance of others had like been the lesser of her duties. Observance and, more keenly, connecting those observations to their sources.
And, they were brother and sister in Lord Taishi’s retinue. This, perhaps, counted too.
He still asked, feigning uncertainty, “… ‘Morose?’”
Futo raised a finger, wagging it pertly in the air. “An everyday Mu,” she taught, “either our Crown Prince master like a hound attendeth, or in yon broom-closet he a library calleth his study furthereth. A morose Mu my sessions with young cadets stalketh and disrupteth. It nay a difficult match is.”
“I suppose,” gave morose Mu.
“And so?” urged Futo. “What doth my brother ail?”
Handai Mu shut his eyes. Then, helplessly, he opened them – together with his arms.
“I am in doubt, Futo.”
A common malady, she might have said. She did not.
Instead, she stole his earlier – genius – question. “Of?”
Mu’s mouth cracked into a tiny curve. Sauntered into that one, you. “I am,” he hurried to explain, “mounting an inquiry. Of a sort. Have been, for a while.”
Futo made a nod. “Mhm. I know.”
The Crown Prince’s acolytes were discouraged from re-entering Gensokyo, unless to progress their training… discouraged, but not dissuaded. Any and all goings were, of course, noted; Mu could no more hide his than he could wrest Toyosatomimi Miko’s control of her domain from her golden mind.
And yet, Futo let it lapse. “Good,” she, in fact, said. “Many a grand answer hath from inquiring begun. How doth it proceed?”
Mu flattened his mouth back into a line. “Ah…” he sighed, sidelong. “Well. Herein’s the bug. I do not know that it should.”
Futo’s answer had been nothing but level. Still, when he looked, Handai Mu found the little master of the Tao frowning.
“I… am not sure of it, anymore.”
“Dost you knowledge desire, Handai Mu?” Futo asked sharply.
Mu squared his back. “Yes, but—”
The small woman shook her head. Her ponytail wiggled at its back. “Wei wu wei,” she declaimed. “Action from action precluded. Our Crown Prince master hath you with strength and means equipped; the Tao – the Way – your guide is. The Sage occupied with the unspoken is,” Futo recited, “he without effort acts; with nary verbosity teaches, with nary possession produces. He with nary regard to result creates.”
“I know the adage, Futo.”
“What, then? If to wit doth what you desirest be – pursue it. Therethrough you to our Crown Prince master dost honour.”
“What if my question is wrong?” dared Mu. “What if it defies the precepts?”
“How doth it?” Futo dared back. “A mere question?”
“It—” Mu clamped his jaw. He sieved his reply. He separated the lies. “… My question,” he said at last. “It sets… people… against me. It sows discomfort. Chaos.”
“Meanest you your friends in your former home?” guessed Futo. “In the human town?”
“Can’t be,” sniffed Mu. “I’m not capable of friends. Too morose.”
Futo brushed past the joke. “How dost you this know?” she asked, all scholarly. “That your question this discomfort, this chaos sows?”
“Conjecture. Surmise. Glares and silences. The works.”
“But nay words.”
“No,” confirmed the inquiring priest. “No, never words. Why—”
A trace of discontent fogged behind Futo’s eyes. Mu cut himself short.
“Let us,” the little Taoist proposed, “your question with another question trial.” She put her hands to her sides. “Handai Mu. What dost you want, right now?”
Mu faltered. “Now?”
Futo inclined her head. The ponytail bobbed. “Here. Now.”
Handai Mu withdrew into a spell of silence, taking stock of the small, grey-haired woman. He sidestepped the undertone of his wants turning immediately to her… and let them shape.
Mononobe Futo, ancient of Shigisan, Lord Taishi’s familiar, stood before him: a bundle of stark energy wrapped inside a thin skin of discipline. Mu skimmed his gaze along the woman’s edges. The tall hat – held by a tucked clip to her hair, so as to prevent it falling off. The long-sleeved hunting cloak – many-layered, each dyed to reflect a tier of her rank. The navy skirt below, cut almost inappropriately short for ease of movement. The bare legs with scuffed knees… which could shoot her like a mortar round over Gensokyo’s mountains.
Mu’s eyes trailed up again, returning to his once-tutor’s own.
Futo held his stare, waiting – a faint smile drawing her cheeks. Audacious, but accepting. Honest. Open.
And then, in a flash of insight, Handai Mu knew what it was he wanted.
( ) “I want to pick you up.”
( ) “I want your scrunchie. For keeps.”