, a place beyond.jpg
I chose to ignore her request. The simple fact was that I didn’t need her. I had her at a disadvantage, her sword slung behind my back like a trophy. Closer to a trinket, actually, since I didn’t even feel like showing it off prominently. If she was planning to manipulate me by throwing my words back at me, she would have to try harder.
“Where do I need to go?” I asked, more for her sake than mine. She was sure to understand my real meaning.
“I’ll show you later,” she insisted, scowling.
“Be well,” I said. It was a flat goodbye, one that drove home the point that I wasn’t going to waste any more time.
“Wait! You’re really just going to go and leave me?” she asked, looking up at me with those clear green eyes. Momentarily, they showed what could have been genuine disappointment. Or perhaps it was well-deployed guile. She hardened again swiftly, adding with acerbic flair, “you’ll just be wandering around, lost. So suit yourself!”
“I’m willing to take that chance,” I hastened to bid her goodbye again, adding a little trap, “I’ll be off now, I’ll find the person in charge near the back, right? Big fancy room, I gather.”
“You won’t find her at all,” the girl smiled, with a certain degree of smugness. But her eyes betrayed her. The her had caused her to shift her gaze into another direction, likely indicating where she thought her mistress was at the moment. If I hadn’t been looking for it, I wouldn’t have picked it up, at all, since it was a quick and involuntary action.
“Alright, you make sure to rest up,” I started off into the direction she had pointed at, towards the other door in the room.
“You need to be more patient!” she gasped as she struggled to stand, failing to muster the strength. The cloud that hovered around her spun quickly around her, as frantic and upset as she seemed to be.
I didn’t say anything, letting her stew in her own ill-humor. I was certain that she’d continue to try to follow me but I was equally certain that she’d struggle to make it past the door. I put her out of my mind and instead tried to get my bearings. The problem with grand old structures is that they tend to have a lot of subtle features and secrets that are hard to suss out between similar-looking decorations.
As I suspected earlier, I found myself next to a large courtyard. A large porch enclosed most a vast inner space, a well-kept garden where gravel was carefully raked in smooth snaking patterns in a few different directions. This grey sea had a few islands in the form of larger stones, a few shrubs and trees. There were also a a pair of paths that cut through the periphery towards the rear wall, beyond the main structure and porch.
Even with the girl’s inadvertent help, there was still a lot of ground to cover. Doors that led to room and corridors all looked the same when closed and there were no signs that any one place was more important than the other. It wasn’t like I wanted to simply barge in either, there were limits to audacity. So I started walking towards one of the ends of the porch, attempting to make a mental note of anything that could possibly show me the way. Were it a castle, I could trust to find the most important person in a room up top. Just like, in a way, I could find the tengu worth talking to higher up on the mountain. Flatness was just outright impractical when it came to showing your standing.
I had almost given up hope of finding an obvious clue. I was nearing one of the edges of the porch, where it changed direction until coming to an abrupt end near the perimeter wall. One of the doors I had just passed slid open slowly. I turned, half-expecting to see the girl hobbling on one leg, a maddened spirit possessing her. There was nothing of the kind.
In fact, there was nothing at all.
I stared with apprehension, waiting to see if someone or something was going to come out. As far as I knew, doors didn’t usually open themselves. After realizing that nothing was going to happen, I decided to go back to peer in. I’d have to start opening doors and checking rooms soon, anyhow, may as well start with that one.
“Excuse me, is there anyone here?” I sidled up to the door, rapping lightly, whilst simultaneously taking a look inside. It was a larger room, far less austere at first glance than the one I was in earlier. Light from the courtyard filtered in, casting a few long shadows. A hanging scroll with a painted landscape dominated one end of the room, while meticulously arranged flowers sat opposite. In between, a medium-sized table where perhaps a little more than half a dozen people could sit comfortably at.
“Why yes, there is,” a voice replied. It was soft and complaisant, one whose matching smile was too easy to picture. It belonged to a woman who sat at the middle of the table, looking out towards the courtyard and right at me. Somehow I missed her presence when I was looking around the room.
“I’m terribly sorry for intruding,” I defaulted to politeness. Unlike the girl, she hadn’t been uncouth yet, “I’m looking for the lady of the land, would you happen to know where I could find her?”
“Lady of the land?” she cocked her head, making the somewhat wavy strands of medium-length hair move across her cheek and become tousled. In the half-light I couldn’t make out more of her features. She opened up a hand fan and waved it casually a few times in front of her face, an action that looked well-practiced. “Why would you be looking for someone like that?” she asked.
“I’m to meet her,” I replied, “I’ve got an invitation.”
“What a curious situation,” she remarked, adding casually, “and do you always fight those who get in your way?”
“Fight?” I squinted, trying to see if the girl had was in the room as well.
“You made quite the ruckus, you know,” she answered the unspoken question with a carefree laugh, “even the dead would be awake after something like that.”
“It wasn’t my intention,” I replied, “she was needlessly confrontational, I couldn’t just let it be.”
“Ah, to be such a child,” she fanned herself some more, ambiguous as to whether she meant me or the girl. “Well, you’ve found the lady in charge, so you can rest easy. Do be a dear and open the door completely, it’s still dark in here.”
“Of course,” I said, trying to assess the situation as best I could. I didn’t know if I was making much of an impression either way yet. Those were large doors, meant to be opened all the way and thus provide the room with a sumptuous view towards the garden. I could see then that there were more details I had missed—scrolls carefully placed in a small rack tucked away in a corner and a bonsai on one end of the table. So much for sharp tengu eyes, I blamed the slight fatigue brought on from dealing with that girl.
“Do have a seat,” the lady now invited, indicating with a sly tipping of her fan a spot opposite her. The clothes she wore were far more traditional and restrained than what the girl had been wearing; A azure cap with a spiral icon at the front matched the color of a fine and delicate-looking kimono. A few few ribbons and frills adorned her garments here and there, most notably on her sleeves and shoulders.
As she fanned herself some more, I couldn’t help but appreciate the alluring air about her. She smiled, enigmatically, as it seemed polite but also to hint at an ease at reading others that I felt I had previously encountered in the more wizened tengu matrons. With but a careless ruffle of a feather they would know all your thoughts and desires. Power wielded so subtly and with such ease was to be admired. I knew that it would be hard to read whatever her true feelings were behind those noble and attractive features and carefree attitude.
I removed my rucksack before sitting, taking care to release the sword from it so that it did not simply drop carelessly to the ground. The woman’s darker yet clear reddish and brown eyes followed my movements with some interest, eventually meeting my own gaze with a wordless and relaxed smile. I left the sword beyond arm’s reach, a belabored sign of respect.
“I’m afraid I don’t have any tea and crackers ready,” she said, covering her mouth with her fan playfully, “usually it’s Youmu’s responsibility to mind those. She’s likely still indisposed, not to mention indignant, following your little encounter.”
“It’s quite alright,” I replied, ignoring the other part of her statement completely. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to apologize, feel uneasy or was just needling me for the sake of it. But it seemed I was right about how sharp she really was. I followed by asking, “Would you like to see the invitation now?”
“Yes, that’s probably best,” she said, nodding. She placed her fan on the table and watched quietly as I reached into my bag and got the sealed invitation. I handed it over to her with a deferential nod, fulfilling etiquette appropriately.
She took it and examined it quickly, even bringing it close to her face and giving it a quick whiff. Had no idea why she’d do that, I think I’d have noticed if it had a distinctive scent like that of a perfume. As I watched her break the seal with the swift motion of a finger, I noticed something else that I had missed: much like Youmu, there was a small translucent blob near her. In fact, there were several. All much smaller, and almost invisible in direct light and they orbited her in an unpredictable fashion and speed. Only by really staring in her direction and focusing could I actually follow them and their movements.
“Is there something you wanted to ask me?” she interrupted my thoughts, picking up her fan again and covering her face for effect, “you’ve been staring at me so hard you’re liable to make me blush.”
“My apologies,” I said, trying not to trip over what I was sure was meant to be a targeted coy remark. “I’m not yet accustomed to dealing with people of import outside my home, I beg you to be forgiving of any unintentional and thoughtless slights.”
“You’re well spoken, I’ll grant you that,” she praised me without hesitation, “though there’s something to be said for more direct and heartfelt speech, isn’t there?”
“As you say,” I nodded, hoping to approximate her own guarded smile.
“I think I like you,” she laughed all of a sudden. It was a good-natured outburst that was almost compulsively disarming. “I’m sure it’ll all be fine.”
“If I may ask,” I didn’t miss a beat, choosing to press on, “what exactly do you mean by that?”
“The reason you’re here,” she said, “the reason for this invitation and its quite interesting contents. Incidentally,” she placed the invitation face down on the table, “would you like to read it yourself? I think you’ll be amused by it.”
I couldn’t tell if it was a test. She was still hard to read, with her effulgent demeanor that had me constantly on the back foot, always on the cusp of letting down my guard as one might shed a heavy coat when the sun came out in force. I believed she was genuine, at least to a significant degree, and that’s what made her so dangerously disarming.
Of course, there was a chance that it really was some silly thing, something so insignificant that made second-guessing myself utterly pointless. There was a chance that I wouldn’t be in her debt at all and that we’d just share a knowing look, perhaps even a slight chuckle.
 Find out what it says.
 Some things aren’t worth knowing.
Have something raw, with the most minimal of editing and revision due to time constraints. Hope you enjoy it all the same, I've been looking forward to moving things along. Happy New Year, guys!