We are not led in the Writing of our Almanack by the ſame Motive that induced Don Quevedo to write his Six Viſions, which he ſays was pure Spite, &c. becauſe he had been hardly uſed,—but we write our Almanack as a grateful Return to our Encouragers, becauſe we have been handſomely received, and kindly entertained; and yet the ſame Reaſon that prevailed upon his Tranſlator to publiſh his Preface, induced us to publiſh this, viz. for Faſhion-Sake, and to fill up a Space, and to pleaſe our Readers, who would be ſurprized to ſee themſelves to jump immediately from the Title to the Matter.
—preface to the Poor Robin, 1756: An Almanack After the Old and New Faſhion; or, an Ephemeris of the Laſt and Neweſt Edition, Wherein the Reader May Find (by the Rules of Aſtronomical Gimcracks) Many Uſeful and Remarkable Things, Worthy of His Utmoſt Attention and Curious Obſervation
* * *
The boy left Suzunaan empty-handed—and the maidenly proprietress thereof an abject, blushing mess.
Motoori Kosuzu attempted without great result to return to the novel in which she had been fairly engrossed only ten or fifteen minutes ago, before she had been temporarily pulled aside by the call of custom. She refound her place, ran her eyes down a sentence, lost the train of it halfway, and rebounded utterly off the beginning of the next. Twice again she repeated this mainly oculomotor effort, and twice again she penetrated no further than her first assay.
She set the book down and dropped her face into her palms, jingling softly. But the eigengrau proved no succour, either, as the image of that boy proliferated across the verdant field of her imagination—a boy in a cardigan and a neat capelet, and a large, soft cap, and beneath it he had only been perhaps as tall as Kosuzu herself. Commensurately young, therefore; younger indeed than the proprietress by a trifle of years; but with a handsome crystal pendant looped shortly about his neck, and a princely head of tousled mouse-grey hair. And a forceful boy, with a penetrating glare; and yet with a voice so small, she’d had to have him all but whisper his words right into her burning ear—whisper, with warm and gentle breath; but still had he been ever so insistent, on that which he had come to extract from her …
… Dimly she became aware of someone again walking into the shop, light footfalls evincing a lighter build, and Kosuzu very nearly jolted up out of her seat, believing for an ebullient moment that he had come back to ask for more.
But she chanced to slip a hazel glance through a brief gap between her fingers, and saw that it had only been an ordinary magician.
“Hey, is it just me, or are the mice startin’ to swarm up again? ’Cause I could swear I saw at least three of ’em scurryin’ about, just on my way back from the … from the, er … Hey; Kosuzu? … Hullo?”
Marisa reached out and lifted up her fringe, laying a warm palm on her flushed forehead.
“Well, you’re not runnin’ a fever. You been losin’ out on sleep?”
Kosuzu inhaled at length through her hands, straightening her back and holding it in for a long second. Then she folded her hands abruptly on the desk, releasing the breath sharply, and greeted Marisa with as much nonchalance as she could muster.
Which was not insubstantial, to tell the fairest truth, but her ears and cheeks maintained a lingering rougesse.
And, more damningly, she pronounced it Good moaning.
Marisa whistled, and began to pry.
The story, sorry for the magician, was rather less lurid than she perhaps had hoped.
“… An almanac?”
“Yes, but a foreign one, specifically … Portuguese or Dutch.”
“So’d you manage to find him one?”
“No …” said Kosuzu regretfully, “but that’s the oddest thing. Miss Sakuya came in only yesterday, and walked out with all of our old almanacs!” She gesticulated a row of books wider than her own arms could encompass. “Over four centuries of back catalogue!”
“What, all of ’em herself?” said Marisa, picturing it.
(An aproned and frill-bedecked, but more relevantly hulking and silverbacked image floated to the forefront of the magician’s mind; or rather again it knuckled forth—)
“No, she had a few fairy maids along with her,” said Kosuzu, smiling a little wistfully. “They were so well-behaved! I think one of them, the littlest one, her name was Dahlia …”
The magician quirked a brow at the predication of well-behaved to a generally understood tautological incompatibility. But then she arrived upon a different angle of questioning, and grinned, with utmost insinuation: “That’s a nice name for a little one, hey?”
Kosuzu hummed absently in agreement.
“Thinkin’ about names for some of your own?”
“Well, I don’t know if a Western name would … I mean!” she squeaked, the implicature only just registering consciously. She regarded the magician crossly: “That … is still a long ways off!”
“Hm, what is?”—A certain nosey, bespectacled tanuki ducked conveniently in through the noren.
“Kosuzu’s gettin’ married!”
“Ho! Congratulations, congratulations!”
Kosuzu, disgruntled, primly recounted the facts.
“Now ye mention it,” said Futatsuiwa, “but if I didn’t pass by ’im on my way in … Looked to be settin’ out for the Temple, if I recall rightly.”
“The Temple?” mused Kosuzu. “Hm …”
“Some’n queer about that?” said the tanuki.
“Well, not particularly …”
“Good news, Kosuzu!” said Marisa. “Now ya know where to go lookin’ for a happy coincidence.”
The tanuki tapped her chin. “Here, now. Dutch and Portuguese—if I been hearin’ ye right?”
“Yes …” said Kosuzu, “why?”
“Them’s nautical books he was seekin’, then.”
“Kinda’ roundabout way of askin’, don’tcha think?”
“Nautical books,” mused Kosuzu. “Hm …”
“Good news, Kosuzu! Now ya know what to write about in your secretly admiring letters.”
Marisa ducked instinctively, the glowing red bullet carrying off her hat. Then she turned to the tanuki:
“So, wait a minute; you said he was goin’ to the Temple?”
“That I did. Come to think, t’were once an old ship-hulk, weren’t it?”
“Flew pretty well for a hulk, but yeah. You get what I’m sayin’?”
“Aye. Young folks, feelin’ the urge to stir the salt sea … Thinkin’ they’re invincible. Happens in every age.”
Kosuzu hummed. “But it’s all right to have dreams, isn’t it?”
“That’s no good,” admonished Marisa. “There’s a rogue of a Captain to that vessel, don’tcha know? A swashbucklin’, silver-tongued shipwreck phantom!”
“She’ll drag him right under, if ya don’t make your move quickly!”
“You are incorrigible!”
“Lad’s a little young for sextants, methought.”
“Exactly! … Oh, what’s so funny about that!”
“Ah—heh—nothing … Oh, by the way; asked this earlier, but either of you notice anythin’ weird about the mice?”
“Mice? … Er, not particularly?”
“Really! Ye must be blind! Town’s lousy with ’em today!”
“Right? I tell Reimu, but for some reason she just won’t listen to a word I say …”
“… Good!” said Kosuzu, jingling emphatically.
Outside the Village, Nazrin pulled off the hat, wiggled her ears, and wondered again if the bookstore girl hadn’t gotten into some sort of strange misconception about her.
Again Susa-no-wo shot a whizzing-barb into the middle of a large moor, and sent Oho-na-muji to fetch the arrow and, when he had entered the moor, at once set fire to the moor all around. Thereupon, while he stood knowing no place of exit, a mouse came and said: “The inside is hollow-hollow; the outside is narrow-narrow.”
Owing to its speaking thus, he trod on the place, whereupon he fell in and hid himself, during which time the fire burnt past.
—Hieda no Are, the Kojiki
* * *
The Bamboo Forest of the Lost, though its stalks and shoots be perennially green, is itself, make no mistake, a deeply ancient place.
And, certainly, one could delve deep into its past.
Certainly could one trace the thicketed histories: of both itself and of its odd bed-fellowship of furtive inhabitants, twining like insistent arrowroots each round the other. One could trace them backwards through the small incident of the Imperishable Night, and on through the Earthward plummeting of the rabbit Reisen, and the breaking then of the centuries-long spell of eternity. One could follow back further still, through the arrival of the immortal flame, and the bargain with the meddlesome Hare of Inaba, and the first decision to shelter there after the massacring of the Lunar emissariat. And if one persisted, even after uncovering that foulest plot between Princess and traitor Sage, one would find oneself plunging headlong into a darkling abyss of years: years remembered now only to a select longevitous few, and given over to human posterity only by the most capable memoriser of their race.
One would discover the ancient conquest of the heavenly gods—of which the present Hōrai Principality was but a far distant echo—over the fragrant Central Land of the Reed Plains, rich with the rice-bounty of a thousand autumns, and the sealing of the Lord Daikoku who had once held its dominion.
But all that Inaba Tewi cared to remember right now was that the Bamboo Forest was afire, and damn the bloody saga leading up to it.
The mad Princess glimmered expeditiously overhead, the immortal firebird roaring behind in hottest pursuit. In their wake, a line of licking flame was deposited straight across the rabbit’s path, cutting off the last avenue of escape that had till then remained to her. And attuned though she was to the leys of vitality in the grove, which dictated its labyrinthine and daily-shifting convolutions, she could not command the stalks themselves to part and allow her past.
Tewi wondered for a moment if this time she would lose more than just her fur. After all, the luck of a rabbit never runs out—until it does.
But fortune of a different kind now smiled upon her.
(Or did not exactly smile; but popped her mildly scowling head up all the same, bursting through the loose soil mouse-grey hair and ears first.)
The Hare of Inaba gave an undignified shriek, and then settled back down again when she had fully taken in the odd sight. “Nazrin! What in blazes are you doing here?”
The head did not deign to answer stupid questions as a rule; and specially not ones with even stupider puns involved; but curtly withdrew, to reveal a narrow tunnel leading down in its wake.
The rabbit shook her own head and rubbed her eyes, bleary from smoke. She knelt, and peered with apprehension down into the tunnel, wondering where precisely it led and if she could really fit inside.
Then a pair of impatient hands grabbed hold of her flopsy ears, and the Hare of Inaba plunged—headlong down through darkling abyss.
They landed, to put it shortly, in the ventilation space above the lower basement wing of Eientei.
Sparing no time for explanations, Nazrin at once lifted aside a fibreglass tile from the drop ceiling, and stuck her head momentarily down through the portal, before hopping through it into the lit hallway beneath. Tewi, intrigued, followed without hesitation behind, a barrage of questions raring to let fly.
She got out perhaps two words before Nazrin clamped an urgent hand over the rabbit’s mouth, and pressed her flush up against the wall. The mouse then clove to the wall herself, watching fixedly down the length of the corridor—her round ears up prompt and swivelling, while her tail kept silent vigil over any further verbal excursions.
Tewi pushed the appendage aside with a dainty finger, and sauntered plainly out in the middle of the hall. “No need for that, so! If you’re skittish about Reisen, she’s out takin’ inventories in the Village. And the good doctor is too engrossed to spare a peep up from her desk, even with those two personalities brookin’ it right over her head … Now, just what was it that you were after, that you needed ol’ me to come along?”
Nazrin sighed, and elucidated it to her in a word.
“Records, hey? Why—right this way, to be sure!”
The rabbit took Nazrin arm-in-arm, apparently believing in some sort of profound camaraderie which the mouse did not really honestly share, and chaperoned her up to a sturdy metal door bolted to stout hinges, set into the solid concrete wall.
A notice was posted on the door.
ACHTUNG! ALLES TOURISTEN UND NON-TECHNISCHEN LOOKENPEEPERS!
DAS KOMPUTERMASCHINE IST NICHT FÜR GEFINGERPOKEN UND MITTENGRABBEN! IST EASY AUF SCHNAPPEN DER SPRINGENWERK, AUF BLOWENFUSEN UND AUF POPPENCORKEN MIT SPITZENSPARKEN. IST NICHT FÜR GEWERKEN BEI DUMMKOPFEN! DAS RUBBERNECKEN SIGHTSEEREN KEEPEN DAS COTTON-PICKENEN HÄNDER IN DAS POCKETS MUSS.
ONLY RELAXEN, UND WATCHEN ASTAUNISCHED DER BLINKENLIGHTS.
“Never did get the hang of readin’ Dutch,” said Tewi, and shimmed the latch with a tongue depressor.
The room beyond was spacious; though its greatest extent was preoccupied with several rows of metal shelves—running mobile along rails set into the floor, and compacted against each other so that access was limited to one or two at a time. Each shelf in turn was loaded with boxes, themselves filled flush with manila folders, and within the folders were kept loose sheaves of paper, any staples or other fasteners, if they had been present before, having since been extracted—both for sake of compactness and out of concern for rust, now that eternity had relented under the eaves of Eientei.
Long overhead lamps, each the cold hue of lambent moonlight, lent the archive-room a sterile, airless quality.
Tewi felt the mouse’s hesitation, and with a snap of her fingers abjured it directly. “No need to nose through all of that,” she dismissed it with a wave. “We’ve got an outside-world shikigami that Reisen’s been crammin’ it all down. We can just get it to cough up whatever it is that you need!”
So saying, she conducted Nazrin over to a corner of the room, wherein an irregular cluster of beige boxes had been set up on and around a flimsy-looking not-quite-wooden desk, sinuous grey tendrils feeding between each pair of them and leading ultimately down into the wall. Nazrin squinted over the boxes with some initial recognition, recalling similar such artefacts in the second-hand store of that odious shopkeep out by the magicians’ Forest; and her opinion on them soured a little by the association.
The rabbit cupped her chin for a moment in thought. “How did it go, now …”
Then, remembering, she prodded a protrusion on one of the taller boxes’ front.
Then the shikigami chirped sharply, and began to purr. There lit up small lights on both its front and from within, some steadily; others flickering rapidly and stochastically. The inner lights were visible through a grille of holes punched in its side, which was partially obscured by the hanging corner of an embroidered cloth draped over its top. Nazrin stooped down beside it to peer more closely in, and reached out to lift the cloth for a better look.
“Oi; don’t touch that!” said Tewi, intercepting her. “Don’t you know? You should never muck about with a shikigami‘s clothes!”
Nazrin regarded the rabbit dubiously.
“That’s what makes it tick, you see. I’ve listened in on Reisen speakin’ with the doc’ about it now and then, and she’s always listin’ off gripes about the old soft-wear.”
The mouse considered it, and resolved to test the theory the next time the cat in the distinctive red dress came after her.
“Just leave it to me,” said Tewi, inclining against an elbow perched up on the desk. “I’m the expert, here! … Now, just give ’er a minute or two to wake.”
The shikigami began to snore.
Tewi thumped it.
At once, there glowed up a deific scene in the glass front of the box beside. A manifold and many-coloured sigil hovered brightly in the centre, amidst an eiderdowned blue sky of the Celestials. Nazrin scurried over, and gazed into the image with some almost religious wonder.
“See!” said Tewi, and thrust a thumb towards herself: “Expert.”
(In fact the loading screen put them both a little to mind of the revived god of the marketplace, who was occasionally to be seen after the calming of the latest incident loitering feebly but gaudily around various crossroads, like a decoy for shooting leprechauns.)
Another minute passed, and the shikigami awakened in full—singing out an odd, warbling chime as it did—and the beatific image of the sky gave way to a field of flat dark teal, with more strange sigils strewn about.
Nazrin looked over to the rabbit questioningly.
Tewi gave out a theatrical chuckle, and cocked her other elbow smugly out with her hand upon her hip. “At this point,” she explained, kicking out a foot out to rest upon its toes, “a second shikigami gets involved. And I’ll bet you couldn’t imagine what it is or what it’s called!”
Nazrin glanced down, and pointed at the mouse-shaped object on the desk.
“Er, yes; I suppose that was a bit obvious … But I bet you couldn’t guess as to what it’s meant to do!”
Nazrin pointed at the arrowhead in the middle of the screen.
Tewi clicked her tongue, deflating a little. “Right. Mouse did fetch up that arrow for Lord Daikoku. Really shoulda’ remembered that part of it …”
Nazrin puffed up smugly herself, and confidently started to operate the shiki-mouse.
Which is to say, she gave it a few gentle tickles on its back, and then flipped it over to tickle its underbelly.
“That’s not how you’re meant to—!” began Tewi vindictively, only to stop short when she saw the arrowhead indeed start to wiggle about the screen. “… Damn prodigy. Well, grand! I guess you didn’t need my help after all—since you’ve got it all figured out there by yourself!”
Nazrin lifted up a brow, and took it as the challenge it undisguisedly was. Quite unwilling to back down now that she had met with some success, and indeed with her pride as a mouse yōkai at stake, she spent a few minutes experimenting thoroughly, flipping the shiki-mouse back and forth a few times to discover which sorts of tickles accomplished what. In the process she changed the system date to sometime in the Late Imbrian, or when the Rabbit on the Moon had just recently ceased to be the Vaguely Rabbit-shaped Ocean of Seething Lava on the Moon; and also, somehow, activated StickyKeys.
“I’ll just leave you to it, then,” said Tewi, finally brought to a condition impressively resembling humbled.
Now Nazrin paused to think for a moment. The arrowhead clearly represented the spirit of the mouse. She needed only have it retrieve the hidden item which she sought.
By a stroke of inspiration, she unclasped the crystal pendant from around her neck, and hung it like a pendulum from her hand. Like that, she held it out against the screen—and Tewi leapt straight past humbled into a state of unconcealed awe. For, as the dowsing-crystal approached the convexed glass, there was induced a miraculous double-vortex of distorted colours in the screen, its field lines convergent upon the position of the stone.
The Hare of Inaba watched speechless as, gradually but gainfully, Nazrin wiggled the small arrowhead along the sublimely rainbow-limned paths—trusting them as preternatural treasure-guides. Fetching up one document full of the last nine months of patient records, and finding them wholly unimpinging on her interest, she summarily sped the constituent bits on their way through digital Saṃsāra, and continued on likewise deleting her way through balance sheets, inventories, and Reisen’s early, abortive attempts at slideshow briefings for the Earth rabbits.
Finally Nazrin unearthed the specific records she was after. Ephemeris data—data on the positions and trajectories of the stars in the sky—spanning untold millennia past, and accurate down to the tenth of the arc-second.
She printed out the last four centuries’ worth.
Tewi startled, as yet another, massive beige shikigami now thrummed to awakening behind her. Letting out wild grunts and squeals of exertion, it began to fling out sheet after sheet of charts and tabled figures, like a hanataka-tengu cocktailed on amphetamines. She watched on, still wordless, as soon enough the output tray was overflowed, and the pages were driven off of it to accumulate upon the floor—carpeting out around their feet a veritable last snow of early spring.
Eventually the grunting ceased, and a red light winked on, accompanied by the fell and esoteric runes of portent: PC LOAD LETTER.
“What the fuck does that mean!”
Nazrin only gave the rabbit an omniscient smirk, and used her crystal to divine out the pages she required, leaving the rest of the paper snowdrift untouched where it lay.
Then she twitched her nose, and glanced back over to the open doorway. Briskly she rolled up the sheaf of printouts, and stowed them down a deep skirt-pocket.
“Hm?” Tewi swivelled her head; but caught nothing aside from empty air. She turned her head back—to find but empty air as well, in place of where the mouse had been only a moment ago. “You know, you’ve got to tell how it is you do that,” she said, knitting her brows. “It’s like you just go invisible on me.”
“Very simple. A Buddhist mudrā, or hand-seal. Put your left hand into a fist, and cover or engulf it with the right.”
(… explained a voice, invisible indeed, and quiet as a whisper in her ear.)
“Clever.” Tewi attempted it. “Like so?”
“Not quite. They should take up the forms of the Sun and crescent Moon, respectively.”
“Still don’t seem to be gettin’ it.”
“Also, you must have true faith,” said the voice … and pushed the tip of a ramrod finger against her head.
Tewi stiffened, and slid her eyes carefully over to the side.
The crescent-moon of the Lunar Defense Corps glinted silver on a black lapel, matched equally across by the golden star device of the Apollo missioneers.
“Well?” said the fallen rabbit from the Moon—her glare a seething lava without shores. “… Do you? … Punk?”
Now that Tewi thought about it, the mouse had been conspicuously absent that day, when the Lunarians had come for Lord Daikoku.
A chill held in the morning Forest. Here, in the magicians’ weald, the humidity was such—even merely in perambulation—as to dampen the very heart.
—Agatha Chris Q, M Dies of M
* * *
But a fairy’s heart is made of sterner stuff than that.
Luna Child rubbed her hands and tucked them beneath her arms, as she stared on through crisscrossing branches and the intermittent fog of her own exhalations. Beside her sat Sunny Milk, chin buried in her knees, eyes halfway lidded, and letting out the makings of a snore with every third or fourth breath that she took. Beside that fairy in turn sat Star Sapphire, getting sloshed.
And as for why? … Well, to put it briefly, the previous night had been the one of the new Moon. Or, rather, the absence thereof: as it dipped beneath the horizon at dusk, to make its long and lonesome nocturnal journey through strange and secret lands unknown to the waking world—only resurfacing come the dawn, amid Phosphorus and the rising Sun. And so Luna, too, the fairy of the Moon, had set out to make her own unseen peregrination by night, and in particular back to the old tree in the Forest, in which the Three Fairies had once made their home, and where they had lived contentedly for many an unnumbered turning of the seasons. And as she took stock of it, seeing that it was still healthy, and even maintained, and hearing faint fairy-snoring emanating from inside, Luna was filled with an indescribable emotion within: one altogether rare amongst the typical moods of a fairy. She thus remained there for a time, watching from that minor but seemingly insuperable distance which one who has been in this situation knows well; and at length and at last had managed to turn away—when she noticed someone wandering past, quite alone and unbothered, into the denser depths of the Forest. Possessed suddenly by a great indignation, that whatever sleep-addled fairies had moved into her old home could allow it simply to be passed by like that without the passer-by being hoodwinked even a little bit, she strode up to the door and pounded on it quite discourteously, with full intent to shanghai the good-for-nothings into a decent prank befitting of proper fairyhood.
Imagine her surprise, then, when Sunny Milk came down and opened the door, complaining groggily about lost sleep.
About a dozen theories flitted through Luna’s head at once, ranging in concept from sinister to bizarre to worthy of philosophical renown if ever published in the outside world. They were only compounded when she noticed Star Sapphire—or, Luna reminded herself, an exact duplicate thereof—slipping out through a high window, with a hefty bottle of booze in tow.
Explanations were demanded between all parties, and eventually, after a good deal of turbulence, had.
It turned out that Luna had not been the only one with the idea to pay a neighbourly visit in the dead of the night. In fact, so had Star—albeit with rather less neighbourly intention, as evidenced by the bottle she still held in her arms. And as for Sunny, well, she recalled yawningly of having had quite the mysterious dream: of being spirited by an unknown someone out of the tree behind the Hakurei Shrine and down to the Forest of Magic, and deposited gently inside their old home, right where she used to have her bed. Star agreed enthusiastically that it was quite the inscrutable dream, and certainly not indicative of any attempt by anybody present to pin any burglaries on anybody else.
(And if you were wondering about the fairies actually living there now … well, let us only say that unscrupulous fairy minds often think unscrupulously alike, and the tree behind the Hakurei Shrine had been left unwatched.)
In any case, now that fate had gathered them all together here in their old haunt, they thought to make the most of it, and perhaps bring something of the old spirit of things alive again.
(Specifically, by being the little pests they’d always been and continued evermore to be, but in a slightly different locale, which was apparently enough to make all the difference.)
(Never mind that they still came to the Forest to do exactly that on alternating Tuesdays and Thursdays.)
The only trouble was, Luna had by now lost track of the specific perambulator who had occasioned this sentiment, and Sunny was in no great mood for perambulation herself. So they went on Star’s perennially trustworthy advice, and cut directly to a spot before the major river in the Forest, which would have to be crossed in order to reach anywhere of interest deeper within. There they could wait, and misdirect their unfortunate mark by a clever illusion to walk right into the freezing drink.
And there they did wait, with undampenable fairy hearts.
(Mainly on the increasingly mumbled reassurances of Star, which had nothing to do with the fact that she couldn’t walk and drink at the same time.)
They waited, in fact, till Phosphorus winked up from the eastern horizon, and the sky had begun to lighten by a shade. Then, and only then, did Luna began to feel a pang. Vague, and unidentified—but, nonetheless, a pang.
“Mm, what for?” said Sunny, stirring.
“My morning coffee,” said Luna, identifying the pang. “I can almost smell it.”
“That bitter stuff,” said Sunny, and stuck out her tongue. “At least it’d be warm. Star, aren’t they here yet?”
Star mumbled something sagely about routes of the scenic variety and the value in taking thereof.
Sunny groaned. “You mean they were lost to begin with.” She buried her face back into her knees. “Wake me up when you see ’em, Luna.”
Luna prodded her beneath the ribs, and silenced the ensuing yelp. “I see them now,” she said. “Star, why didn’t you say anything?”
“Oh, y’right,” said Star. She peeped lengthwise through the now-emptied bottle. “That’s funny.”
“Come on!” said Luna, prodding Sunny again. “They’re right in front of us! We’ve got to bring the legend of the Three Fairies back to life in the Forest!”
“All right; all right!” said Sunny, and squinted, rubbing her nose. “Don’t have to tell me twice.” She did a few preparatory seated stretches, rolling her neck and shoulders and straightening her elbows, her drowsiness ceding each joint in turn to a pure mischievous energy. “I’m ready. They’ll never know what hit ’em!”
“Innit the point for them to know?” said Star, who’d chosen to lie down instead.
“They’ll know it afterwards!” said Sunny, not missing a beat. She focused for a moment, and then waggled her fingers: “Pow!”
Their target took another step forward, and then abruptly halted.
Red eyes glinted through the thin mist.
“Er, Sunny?” asked Luna fretfully. “What exactly did you do?”
“Quarter-radian clockwise deviation at about a hundred yards, dropping off to zero at infinity by an inverse tangent on either side for minimal far-off parallax effect.”
“Just the usual corker.”
“It doesn’t look usual …”
The red eyes were definitely searching for something.
“Well,” said Sunny, squinting, “I’m not sure it’s a usual customer, either. She’s got a … she’s got a … Here; why don’t you take a look?”
She made a circle with her fingers and held it out to Luna’s eye, brightening the image through it and bringing it into focus. As it resolved, the moon-fairy noted that whoever it was was shorter than she’d seemed—and indeed a ways off from exactly human, the red glint coming from reflected light in the pupils, much like in the eyes of an animal.
“I mean, what do you call that?” asked Sunny.
“A tripod?” said Luna, seeing the not-quite-human unshoulder some sort of hefty three-legged brass contraption.
“I meant the ears. What sort of animal did those belong to, again?”
“How do you forget what a mouse is?”
“Right. And she’s got a tripod.”
“I did just say that.”
“But what sort of yōkai carries a tripod around?”
“Bigwig tengu,” said Star, propping herself back up with the bottle. She swung it: “Whack! … That’s how they use ’em. I’ve seen it m’self …”
“I really don’t think she’s a daitengu,” said Luna.
“Or a bigwig anything,” said Sunny. “I mean, a yōkai of mice? Even us fairies are scarier than that!”
“But she’s got an entourage an’ everything,” said Star. “Don’tcha see?”
“You’re just seeing double,” said Luna. “What’s she doing now?”
The mouse yōkai had unfolded the brass tripod and planted it on the ground, revealing something like a telescope mounted on the top. Now she carefully levelled it to the horizontal, intently watching a smaller tube clamped alongside the telescope body, and adjusting the whole assembly with an arcane-looking set of knobs. Apparently satisfied, she retrieved a black pen-like object from a skirt pocket, and held it parallel to the telescope—in the crook between the main and smaller tubes—while she hunched her head down to the eyepiece.
A hair-thin filament of impossibly pure green light lanced out over the fairies’ heads, straight as taut thread, sending inexplicable shivers down their spines.
Then, just as quickly, the light was gone, and the mouse curtly stowed both pen and tripod, with a sort of grim satisfaction to her movements. In their place she unshouldered a cylindrical satchel, from which she retrieved an insulated carafe and lightweight metal mug; and glancing around momentarily, she found a well-sized stone to sit at. There, she tapped the mug against it a few times, producing a distinctively dull and tinny sort of sound.
A large brown rat hopped up onto the stone.
“A rat …”
(Indeed, a rat.)
The mouse unfolded a handkerchief, and spread it out like a tablecloth on top of the stone, the rat sniffing at it curiously.
“… Is she gonna have tea with the rat?” asked Sunny, incredulous. “Is that what she came all the way out here to do?”
“You’d wanna be sure you were alone, too,” said Star, “… if you were gonna have tea with an ol’ RAT!”
Sunny snickered unjustifiably.
“Some people have the strangest hobbies,” said Luna.
Star shimmied the bottle through the air and made little squeaky rat noises, and got Luna snickering, too.
Then the mouse unscrewed the lid of the carafe—and the moon-fairy realised what she had been smelling.
Luna watched on with an unsmall twinge of jealousy as the mouse gave out a generous pour, dark and heady and aromatic, and set the mug down in front of the rat—spooning in a heaping mound of glittering white sugar for good measure. The twinge only grew as she watched the rat raise it up with both forepaws, and tip the entire mugful down its throat in a single, mighty, elongated gulp.
… She watched the rat tip down the entire mug.
“Luna?” asked Sunny, seeing the moon-fairy scatter off in a sensible hurry. “Star?” she asked too, when that fairy also jolted up all of a sudden—sobered in an instant by what her detection-sense was telling her—and scarpered with an alacrity sometimes exhibited by reconnaissance planes under hostile radar lock. “Just where’re you all off to?” the sun-fairy asked, bewildered.
She stood totteringly up, knees still half asleep, and stuck her hands on her hips, wondering if she had missed out on some part of the joke; but nothing really obvious sprang to mind.
Finally she shook her head, and remarked to herself, “And then there was one.”
A person whose movements are conspicuous looks silly.
—anonymous, the Jikkinshō
* * *
Nazrin clambered deftly up the radio tower, and again set up the brass theodolite. She made only a few brief, but critical observations, at a set of precise angles computed painstakingly by hand using the ephemeris data from Eientei. Then she went home, spent the day collecting and weaving long grasses through a fishing net, and set out once more come the evening—with the netting, some tent-poles, and her dowsing rods in hand.
The earth with its frigidity is a coagulation and fixation of this kind of hardness. For the house is always dead; but he who inhabits the house lives. If you can discover the force of this illustration you have conquered.
—Paracelsus, the Coelum Philosophorum
* * *
Yatadera Narumi did not feel greatly like a conqueror.
The magician’s head throbbed as she attempted to parse the indistinguishable blackletter. Her straining eyes swam with tears—a phenomenon which one would typically believe impressive of a statue of hard granite, even one given over to life by the ambient, masterless magics of the Forest. But then again one has probably never attempted to translate the alchemical writings of the Doctor Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim from out of his native 16th-century Schwyzerdütsch, by only natural sunlight and an optimistic little German–Japanese dictionary from the mid-Meiji period.
When Narumi finally pieced her way through the next incomprehensible sentence about the mortification or congelation of Mercury and the dissipation of Sol and Luna existing therein, she had gained half a mind to patch up the hole in her ramshackle roof and brew a calming afternoon tea with the dratted tome as kindling.
By the sentence after that, which began Much more concisely and terminated halfway down the next page, it could be fairly said that she had never been more grateful to have a caller on her stoop.
And not least because it was “Nazrin!”—as Narumi exclaimed when she unlatched the door, and welcomed inside with full delight, and who had a full to sloshing carafe in tow, of that bitter but invigorating concoction which the little mouse for some reason always brought along.
“Oh, do make yourself comfortable,” said the magician, hurriedly tidying the various books and papers and writing-tools carpeting the otherwise bare stone floor. “Yes, just set those down right there; anywhere you please, really; this place couldn’t be more of a mess if you tried; really; only don’t forget about them later; yes, right there is fine; and leave the coffee on the counter; and thank you dearly, by the way; I’ve just precisely been needing some of that; and that can go right over …”
Narumi stopped, and stared.
“… What is that?”
The mouse looked down at the that in her hands, and turned it upside-down, or rather right-side up.
That was a dirt-covered stone in the precise form and extension of a dog’s head.
“Ah,” said Narumi. “And I suppose you would like me to examine it?”
The mouse nodded.
“Well, I would be glad to, of course—what a curious thing that is!—but first you must have something to eat; you must be starving; I’ve got a few offerings stashed up around here somewhere; some carrots and cabbages and wild forage; something to cut your teeth on at the very least; it’ll do you good; and let me put on some tea; and thank you again for the coffee; you don’t know the headache I’ve been getting from this Doctor Paracelsus …”
(She got back around to the point eventually.)
“… Now that is rejuvenating; yes, indeed; it drives the stiffness right out of me; I feel as though I could touch my fingers to my toes; in fact let me try it out right now …”
(In the meantime Nazrin sat splay-legged on the floor and ate through half of the carrots and all of the bamboo shoots.)
“Ah,” sighed Narumi finally, standing back up and flicking her braids back over her shoulders with a motion of both thumbs, the mouse’s miracle brew having done its miracle work. Then she clapped her hands together in overdue rememberance: “Now, the stone!”
The magician withdrew briefly into the rear of her domicile, which consisted for the most part of a modest natural cavern in the face of an abruptly vertical rocky rise, in front of which an artificial complement had been roughly effected out of bundled sticks and thatch. And if it was somewhat beggarly compared to those of her colleagues dwelling elsewhere in the Forest, well, as a former wayside statue exposed to the four seasons, and an incarnation of Jizō at that, Narumi herself could hardly care; and her quiet friend seemed to appreciate it all the same … She soon hurried back, having retrieved a well-maintained and venerable collection of old chisels and brushes.
(Which the living statue discreetly pressed to alternative usage every now and then, in keeping her own figure every bit as well maintained, and not nearly half so venerable.)
Narumi knelt down and began dusting off the strange dog-stone, listing off questions all the while, and the mouse answered them as shortly as she could between alternating bites of carrot and cabbage.
“You found it where? … And how? … Canis Major? I’m not familiar … Ah, the celestial wolf star! … A meteorite!—yes, I was just about to mention it!—the pittings are distinctive … But for one to be in such an artificial shape; or at least it is too much of an eerie resemblance; I have to wonder—”
She jolted suddenly, after rolling a loose pebble away from one of the eye-sockets with her bare finger.
Something had coursed through her, just then. Something vital, and nervous, and terrible and electrifying, and which put her in mind of nothing more than the enigmatic Yin–Yang Orbs of the Hakurei.
(Albeit at lesser velocities.)
Nazrin perked up, halfway through the last carrot and with a second cabbage ready in her lap, watching the magician intensely.
“I think,” said Narumi, hesitating half with trepidation, and half with an inexplicable anticipatory tension, “that this stone may be alive … or something may be alive within.”
The mouse shuffled over to get a better look, raptly gnawing through the last of the cabbage.
Narumi continued cleaning off the dog’s-head, now using a much gentler hand, though working if anything with twice the vigour, and soon enough they met with their first revelation. The eyes of the dog, once caked with soil, were an agate red beneath, and formed out of a different stone, as smooth as polished glass, in great contrast with the scarred outer rock. Their sockets were formed in such an artful way as even to suggest tears of blood beading up in their corners.
The second revelation followed close afterwards, as Nazrin held the cleaned head and rotated it about. By the curvature of the exposed surfaces of the eyes, and by the centre of gravity of the entire assembly, the two of them guessed just about simultaneously that the eyes were not two smaller stones set in decoratively—but hints of a single, larger orb, forming the inner core of the whole object.
The faint call of a crow outside punctuated the high noon stillness, and set Narumi onto the trail of the third and final revelation to come. But only the very first step onto that winding trail, and for now the more straightforward approach of the Occidental sages was foremost in her mind:
“Shall I attempt to extract it?” she asked of Nazrin. “Although I would have to destroy the outer sculpture … But I don’t believe the core will be harmed. For the house is always dead … Oh, just pondering aloud. Well, what do you say?—it is your treasure, after all.”
The mouse pondered herself, for a long and appreciative while, and then nodded her assent. She handed the head up into Narumi’s care.
“Well, you’ve come at just the right time,” said the magician, carrying it to her alchemical workshop. For the moment, it comprised a stone countertop cut into one side of the small cavern, and bearing an assortment of murky glassware. She reached out for one particular beaker brimming with a cloudy white liquid, and another, larger, empty vat. “I’ve got, as it happens, a solvent already prepared. Just quite by chance—it’s the only simple thing that Doctor Paracelsus has written of yet. Caustic lime and white potash, and distilled alcohol … I’ll try a drop of it first, to see if it honestly works.”
Nazrin watched intently as the head was placed into the vat, and the conjectural drop pipetted onto the corner of an eye. The alkahest hissed faintly as it ate a channel through the stone, revealing a streak down the base of the muzzle like a flowing red tear—but the liquid itself picked up no trace of red.
“Splendid,” said Narumi, and upended the rest of the beaker over it.
They took their tea outside while they waited for the windows to stop billowing caustic steam.
“… A door in my back; can you believe it!” Narumi went on, the mouse listening patiently (though perhaps not closely) beside her on the stoop. “And I met that crow tengu—the one who’s always … who’s always … Now, hang on. Say. Tengu … tengu. I’m forgetting something. It’s spinning right out on the edge of my hat … Tian-gou!” she exclaimed abruptly, jabbing out a finger. “The celestial dog! … They are the continental cousins of our own tengu. And in that country, they say, they are meteor yōkai, in the form of stone heads and limbs of dogs … They are supposed to bode calamities.”
The magician blinked once, and then twice, and then leapt back up into the house, heedless of the lingering haze. Nazrin got up and followed sedately behind, squinting and breathing through her capelet. With a sizable and specially coated pair of tongs, Narumi extricated the Tian-gou from the saturated alkahest, or what had now been left of it—to wit, a polished red orb, still dripping with acid, of a size just right to rest atop a palm—and then paused to ask Nazrin to repeat herself.
“When? … Kan’ei? Er … Oh, 1643!”
The mouse nodded.
Narumi sighed, and set the orb down on the counter. “Then I suppose whatever incident it was must be well resolved by now.”
The mouse, for simplicity’s sake, nodded again.
“But now I feel as though I’m forgetting something yet. It wasn’t only about the Tian-gou; although I’m surprised that slipped my mind. There was something more.”
Narumi leaned over the countertop, the red circle seeming almost to hover in the middle of her view.
“Something more …” she murmured, into its depths.
Then she broke away from it and went over to her book-chest, and commenced a comprehensive trawl through her modest archive of the literature.
Her search began slowly and haltingly at first, as she followed down a number of false leads. Soon enough, however, a flurry after flurry of yellowed pages began to pass flickering over her hands, as if the rising and cutting of wheat through statuary eyes of stone; and around her grew accordingly neat but hasty piles of the winnowed chaff. And, certainly, one is reminded, it is this golemmish efficiency which makes others of her species so fit for duties within the various courts and ministries of Hell … Finally the magician divined out her object: the Shasekishū, or Collection of Sand and Pebbles, by the eclectic monk Mujū. She thumbed open the volume at once, landing effortlessly on the page she sought within, and put her finger beside a passage in its midst, pronouncing it clearly out for the mouse’s benefit.
“Whosoever becomes a Great Tengu gets a pearl, red as agate. If one holds this pearl before his eyes or ears, he can see or hear all that happens in the three thousand worlds.”
Narumi set the book down, and turned back towards the orb—or, rather, the pearl of the daitengu.
It rested peaceably on a slight divot in the stone countertop, eaten out by the lingering acid which had pooled at its base. The orb’s own surface remained, of course, unblemished, and even polished to a shine. And, true as it was written, a vital red it was indeed, like pearlescent agate cut en cabochon. Or perhaps moreso, thought the stone magician with some strange kind of sympathy, like a great hunk of flayed and marbled flesh.
But the mouse’s eyes sparkled wonderfully, and Narumi had to stop her by a hand on the shoulder from reaching suddenly out for it. Briskly she splashed it over with what remained of the lukewarm tea, and then tested it with her own hand before handing it down to Nazrin, who took the item readily.
The magician would have cautioned her further, then, against its wanton use: that not all which might be seen or heard from amongst the three thousand worlds should be pleasant, or well-boding. But the little mouse proved herself once more to have wisdom befitting an agent of Bishamonten, for she never once raised it to her eyes or to her generous ears—only cradled it carefully in both hands, and beamed down at it with the pure joy of a valuable treasure gained.
It was almost enough to allay the magician’s misgivings.
Narumi went around and buttoned the windows shut again, and asked the mouse with somewhat deliberate levity: “I don’t suppose you’ll be wanting to stay for much longer?”
The mouse’s ears wobbled back and forth as she shook her head vigorously, before she stopped herself and looked guiltily back up at her host, an apology hovering on her tongue.
“Please—I understand!” said Narumi, holding up her hands in placation. “We magicians are the same way, whenever we make a discovery as momentous as this! So, don’t you fret about manners! … I shall probably be greatly occupied myself, with examining the substance of that curious outer stone. Yes, even solved in alkahest—that is no matter! Only come back when you have a chance, and tell me all about your treasure then.”
Nazrin perked up at the description of her discovery as momentous, and nodded post-haste her promise to return.
“And do be careful going home,” began Narumi; but left it at that, when she saw it could not penetrate. The mouse was aflush with confidence, and doubtless now had absolute faith in the divine protections of her patron—come quite whatsoever it may. So, instead, Narumi only commended her to Jizō, as she always did for a visitor but this time, if it were possible, with twice the commendatory sentiment, and sped Nazrin off upon her pattering way.
When the magician latched her door behind her at last, it was with a leaden worry in her heart, and the great opus of the Doctor Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim was no golden comfort to her at all.
… the Seven Stones of old were by the people generally forgotten, and the rhymes of lore that spoke of them were if remembered no longer understood; their operations were transformed in legend into the Elvish powers of the ancient kings with their piercing eyes, and the swift birdlike spirits that attended on them, bringing them news or bearing their messages.
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Palantíri
* * *
She bounced the haft of her halberd atop her tall shoulder as she waited—an outlying peak by the foot of the Mountain the chosen staging-point—and went over the yamawaro’s explanation of desire-as-production once more in her head.
For the longest time, the white wolf could not understand more than two words of it. The theory in general had seemed to her meandering and absurd, containing scattered analyses and insights here and there, but with no unitary thread to give them practicable force. And when the wolf had brought this up as a concern, the yamawaro had simply turned upon her again that faint and inscrutable smile, and said that it was intentional.
(The yamawaro had then disappeared for an hour, and used some arcane technique of arbitrage to fleece an entire cabal of hanataka-tengu, who had been unwisely running competing side-books under the roof of the Komakusa-dayū.)
But desire came from lack—so had thought the wolf. One eats when hungry, laps of water when parched, and prays, when wracked with uncertainty or fear. That was the lot of the unenlightened, and liberation from Saṃsāra entailed deliverance out from this universal condition of lack.
So she had believed. Then the Gongen of Iizuna had reawakened the latent god of the marketplace, and the wolf had learned from the incident the true abstraction of desire. She had seen, within the clamorous frenzy of the unfettered market, vast bundles and filaments of unmoored desiring, threading through any one individual only to pass on through another, and sustaining themselves, even fortifying themselves, without any necessity for concrete lack—forming living networks akin to the fungal colonies in the Forest, or the pulsating, breathing organs within one’s own body. It was said that the resurrected Prince Shōtoku could overhear the ten desires of any human; and she remembered thinking then that, if the Prince were ever to have become fully percipient to these multifarious and torrential flows of desiring, she would have bled to death in an instant from her ears.
Even then, however, the wolf had only mused, and marvelled and wondered, and had not fully realised its import.
Not till Hajun had rendered it as clear as water-bowl divination.
Of course the daitengu her new overlord had not shown her directly as such, nor intentionally. There was, after all, no reason to believe that a white wolf guard officer could possibly perceive the invisible roads by which real power could make its unmolested travel. The printer magnate had therefore spoken most freely and candidly whilst he conducted his affairs in her attendant midst, and the wolf did not deign to disabuse him of this assumption by raising any objection more complicated than, “You are booked already for that hour, my Lord Hajun.”
And, indeed, this secretarial, schedularial deconfliction was itself enough to occupy for a time her mental wherewithal. But as she became versed in the pattern of his movements, and over the course of the relentless march of acquisitions—consisting majorly of a sundry catalogue, or perhaps hangman’s row, of obscure and foundering small-run publications, but also of experimental printing technologies and local mailers—she had managed to infer the major thrust of Hajun’s play.
And wide a stake he played indeed.
(Great fuligin wings alighted on the peak, and the four white wolves rendered him a point-device salute.)
A year ago, she would have thought Hajun nothing more than a vulture. Or perhaps a rank blackmailer, and the pearl desired only as a mere expedient to that end. Or that he simply wished with it to emulate the slothly, moss-growing indoor life of the prodigal daughter of the Himekaidō.
Now, however, the wolf understood.
That, if one could see all, and one could hear all, truly all that happened within the three thousand worlds—every movement of persons, and every meeting between fellows, and every glance, and transaction, and spoken word of conversation—in short, if one could detect, and subtly nurture or disabuse, every lurking and dormant seed of potential desire …
They waylaid the mouse at the Futamoriichi crossroad.
The Sun was low and red in the west, slipping its rays between mountains and gathering storm as a last resort to pierce any homeward-wending eyes. She landed first, and planted her halberd against the Sun-ward road, her more junior colleagues warding the north, south, and east.
The mouse, to her credit, hardly flinched.
“That is far enough!” commanded the wolf, putting all other thoughts outside of her head. “In contravention of the Laws and Treaties of the Mountain, and by the Right of Interdiction therefore acceded Us, I charge you to be in wilful and hostile possession of—”
“That which had been mine,” interrupted Hajun, beating his wings against air a scanty foot from oncoming ground, and throwing out an omnidirectional billow of dust. Within it he landed on the single tall tooth of a precarious tengu-geta, furling his wings about himself and glaring imperiously down at the little mouse. Now the mouse started backwards and clutched the red pearl to herself, her brows furrowing inwards uncertainly; and Hajun crooked his lips into a paralysing smirk.
The daitengu stated his case plainly.
“You are aware of the significance of that which you have, and you are aware that it does not belong to you. Relinquish it willingly, and I may incline to believe your contrition genuine.”
Having done so, he reached out his upturned hand in expectation.
The mouse regarded the hand for a moment.
Then she sauntered up to him, and bit it.
Hajun screeched, half from the indignity—though half also from real excruciation—and kicked his raised foot outward, to impale the mouse upon his heel. But she dove beneath, and shot away like a cork, and the wolves had barely forced out their flashing sabres when the last inch of her tail disappeared down into the high reeds.
“Adjutant!” roared the daitengu, and the white wolf snapped to attention.
“Aye, Lord Hajun!”
“… Aye, Lord Hajun.”
Swallowing her gall, she tossed her halberd underhand aside, to be caught jugglingly by a subordinate, and leaned out briefly, scanning for movement. Then she plunged forwards, flying for an instant—tracking a perfect collision course with the zigzagging mouse.
When the instant had finished, she had precisely retrieved the daitengu pearl; and the mouse was flung bodily above the reeds.
There rolled a low thunder from the distant north.
The white wolf held the pearl for a moment, peering into its depths, and then relinquished it at once to Hajun, a premonitional tremble in her hands.
The daitengu wasted no words, and likewise no time, other than to spit viciously onto the northern causeway—but snapped his wings curtly, in sounding out a veritable thunder-crack of his own, and was away, pearl in grasp, faster than even the white wolf could track.
The wolf dismissed her subordinates in her overlord’s stead.
And the mouse lay mud-soaked, heaving bitterly.
When the wolf had intercepted the mouse yōkai, she had taken the opportunity to plant a card into her pocket, on which had been written an induction into Grassroots Yōkai Network. She hoped at least that the mouse could find some meagre camaraderie therewith; but dared not do further beneath the eyes of Hajun.
Now, as the wolf finally flew away herself, she glanced over her shoulder down into the reeds, just long enough to see the mouse tear the card up in a rage.
Nazrin was in a fouler mood than she had dwelt in for many centuries.
Not even the yearly mass-burglaries of the hermit Seiga had galled her half as close. Those were indiscriminate, and generally she did not lose anything of great worth, since the Hell-bound shikaisen had all the inborn treasure-sense of a rheumy old furrowing-ox.
But today she had been targeted. In spite of her countersurveillance against the tanuki, and the constant perambulations of that nosey magician; in spite of her condition of mutual honour with the rabbit Inaba, founded upon that ancient chain of gratitude between them which ran through Daikokuten; in spite of her consistent care to move always under cover from the naked sky, and dissemble always the real objective of her actions—she had been waylaid by a daitengu at the very last possible moment, and the result of the last month of effort had been snatched away.
And what was she to have done about it? Shot every rook and raven out of the sky on sight?
She had half a mind to begin doing so out of general principle.
As she stumped her mud-crusted way home to Muenzuka, the evening rain did not come, only thundered impotently in the distance, and Nazrin found herself gathering up handfuls of parched grasses from the roadside, with the imagined intent of laying fell curses through effigy in the pagan jindō manner. She could not bear to think of Bishamonten right now … nor of Jizō, when she remembered how uneasy Narumi had become by the end of her visit, and how readily the magician had put her out on her feet. Likewise desired she not to think of any others in whom she yet bore faith.
Only the confines of her square hut could hold any comfort for her now. And a hut it may have been—but a comfortable one. She had raised it up herself, planed its every timber by hand and been exacting in their fit, and its gable roof never once permitted a leak, whether of rain or snow or pale moonbeam. The chests and cabinetry were likewise level and varnished, and there was a neat place for everything to belong which she saw fit to keep and own at length. Every moment of its construction, and every moment afterwards spent within, was a treasured memory to the little mouse.
When she arrived therefore to its door despoiled and hanging open, and her mice giving out desperate alarm calls at the perimeter, Nazrin was invested with a wrath that could have smothered even the dread grudge of Sutoku, like a yawning ocean-swell over a mere campaign-fire.
But the one within was a tengu more great than even he.
The little mouse marched in blindly dauntless, till she stood in the middle of the hut—her hut, with its joisted floor and soft rush mats over closely-mated hardwood, and where she had dreamt many a dream of brilliant treasures beyond compare. Whereupon, in spite of her prior readiness to stake her very life for it, here and now, she looked up, and dared abruptly not to go even one step further; and her very feet refused to shift from their rooted place.
But still was it a closer approach to her by far, than had achieved any other in the remembered past.
The Gongen of the Highest Peak leaned forward atop the cabinet, exposing her alabaster wrists atop crossed knees and calves out of the gathering black.
And spoke quietly to the mouse, as the Lord Tenma.
“It is custom,” she began, in a voice which belied any notion of age, at once fair and young and wise and severe, and above all numinous, terrible and sublime: “ancient custom amongst we tengu, when we have become indebted by any mean, to provide seven miraculous blessings in return … Therefore, before any explication may be had, allow this to be the first, as the token and troth of my goodwill.”
The tengu sovereign raised up a slim finger, which grew crookedly long before the mouse’s eyes, and tipped itself with a raptorially hooked black talon.
“The Child of Miare in her Chronicle writes that when you set out in search of any item, you must possess a clear conception in your mind of that which it is you seek. Has the child writ truly in this regard?”
At length, Nazrin was able to produce a smallest nod.
Tenma withdrew the talon, and swirled her hand—once more restored to beauty—in front of her, and conjured, by some long-accustomed sleight of hand, an orb of crystal atop her palm, much resembling the red scrying-pearl of the daitengu. But where that had been a grave, striated red of mortification, this newest orb iridesced brightly in the lowering dusk, suffusing the four walls of the hut with a marvellous spectral dance of all colours, and shining as if it held captive within itself the very prismatic light of water-spray. Only its master was not illuminated in any way by the shimmering light, save the immaculate hand which held it out.
“This,” she explained, “is an Izanagi Object. Or, rather, it is an artefact from the age of the primordial gods; and though it is not exactly right to call them collectively by any name, we must for brevity’s sake refer to such things as Izanagi Objects … In general such Objects have no fixed forms; nor names nor ownership. They are relicts of the former world which once was—and was is perhaps the only word for it. They are of the world which nothing more than was, prior to any finite meaning or signification. That indefinition is the wellspring of their illimited divine power, and it grants them a primogenitural claim towards the title of being the only things in this world which may be considered truly Real … Indeed, it is the raw stuff of divinity.
“Of course, such a description is rather abstract. But there is a great concentration of Izanagi Objects beneath our own Mountain, harboured within the stony breast of our Lady Iwanaga; and others lie scattered all throughout this Eastern Country, so full of untold wonders and stories is she. Many of them have been refined, and fashioned into tools, given over to names and ownership at last—at once limiting their potential, but rendering them therefore manipulable, usable, ready-to-hand. A great many will be found in the shape of magatama, having metamorphosed sympathetically in the wake of the upstirring of the land by his Augustitude Izanagi and her Augustitude Izanami. But the very spear which was used to accomplish this, the Jewelled Spear of Heaven, had itself also been an Izanagi Object, and the bicoloured Orbs of the Hakurei as well.
“And so too was the pearl of the daitengu which you had unearthed; and also this, mine own pearl. My Palantír,” she said, pausing shortly to chuckle at some private joke entailed there. Then, just as readily, she recomposed herself: “… Now I believe I must apologise. I must reveal that the pearl you found had been a fabrication; albeit it was fashioned out of a legitimate Object. But I was the one who shaped it, and manufactured the false record of the meteor fall, and had the stone Tian-gou buried there. Then, and here I must express my sincerest contrition, I cajoled the child Yatadera to convince you of its provenance—though by no falsehoods, from either myself or from her!—and I ensured that the same information arrived to the ear of Hajun as well.
“But rest assured that if real harm were to have befallen you at that juncture …”
Tenma only inhaled deliberately; but the mouse was reminded all the same of the lethal talon which had been presented.
“… Well, it would not have. I shall swear to you as much.
“In any case, it had been my intention from the outset for that pearl to fall into his hand. It would have been worthless anywhere else—for its every sound and image is decided by myself, through this, the genuine daitengu pearl. And Hajun himself will not be able to retain it, in the end … I will not go deeper into the circumstances. Doubtless you understand the utility in such a thing. But to accomplish it I had to convince him of its being genuine; and to that end I concocted this little adventure for you. Indeed, you were the only one who could have performed it to my satisfaction. None of my own subordinates could have been so thorough and circumspect.
“You have met with every one of my expectations,” concluded Tenma, a genuine warmth radiating from within the words, “and done me a great favour, even if you had not been aware of it in the doing … And now, I must only pray that my own recompense meets every expectation of your own. You shall discover the rest of my gifts easily, I think, over the coming days and months—though I must deny that any Object will be amongst their number. That would be a luxury beyond even my own unsmall means.
“And besides,” said Tenma, now lightly and free, and she vanished the glowing pearl, startling Nazrin out of her erstwhile reverie—“I don’t believe you would want such a thing from me anyhow.”
In the Object’s sudden absence, the hut was plunged into the fulness of night, and a chill draft blew through the open door. Nazrin spun towards it at once, having felt a briefest brush of silver hair passing backward over her cheek, and the touch of something warmer as well.
“After all,” said Tenma, from already a great many miles afar, her words borne back by an obeisant wind to the ears of the much-beloved little mouse, “… it would spoil all the magnificent fun of searching!”
… and bowing low to the ground with only his head raised up, he said, “Grant me one rule by which to live rightly, and this temple shall be under my protection for future generations without cease.”
—Zansetsusha Sokyū, The Meditating Tengu
* * *
When Nazrin awoke late into the next morning, it was as if from a longest dream. She yawned, and stretched, and struggled to remember the events of the day before: the pearl, the red Sun, fuligin wings and shimmering Object, each recollection morphing from, eclipsing, and obliterating the last. And as each episode came to mind in turn, she brightened; then soured; then was left again in wonderment.
For some while she dwelt upon Tenma’s explanation of the Objects, not moving from where she lay on the floor, and she very nearly sank back into a waking dream. But the trouble that the one Object had caused her already was argument enough in the end to set the thought aside for the present.
She rose hesitantly, and examined herself. Some small soreness remained to her shoulders and side, proving that the events had not been fully imagined; but no hint of mud was left upon her clothes. Indeed, no mud or befoulment of any sort could be noticed on any surface within her modest hut. And, as she would find, nothing of the sort could be permitted, for it was swept away by an invisible hand just as soon as it came.
When she looked through her window, she found that, a ways out from her door, there now ran a narrow, murmuring stream, newly diverted, over a shallow, pebbled bed. Across it arched a little bridge, and she would find with some astonishment that the mere tread of a foot upon it, by any caller—ill or fair—was sufficient to reveal to her the identity of the one approaching, as if she were monitoring the bridge herself.
Behind her hut, at the foot of a rise, was a round hole leading a short ways in. Presently it emitted a dry, chilly wind; but in winter would the very same wind turn warm, so that she could preserve her food throughout the year, and warm herself inside it come the snows. And also would it mound up with a strange, edible sand, which the mice preferred to any delicacies she might have cared to keep and savour for herself.
The penultimate gift, which she would only discover come the midwinter, was that no longer had she any need for locks or latches—for any thief who came prowling would find herself utterly lost among the lycorises, and unable to depart hence from Muenzuka, till she relinquished whatever it was that she had taken.
(This caused a certain wicked hermit quite the consternation one fine Christmas night, and a certain mouse quite the treasure-haul the fine Christmas Day afterwards.)
But the last gift of Tenma was not given the mouse directly.
Nazrin lingered, for a minute, atop the little bridge, touching a finger to one of its posts; turning it about on the smooth, painted surface. Turning, too, within her thoughts.
It had been some time since she last had paid a visit to the Temple, she thought. And reluctant as she may have been to admit it—as the mouse had ever been, to admit such sentiments—she was at a stage where she felt she might welcome the sight again, of some familiar, and indeed well-worn faces.
And the blue sky of Gensokyo beckoned: whitely eiderdowned, and flawless as a robe of the Celestials.
She flew openly, for she had no cause now to dissemble. And she flew unburdened, for she had no need of instruments, and straightly, for she had no need of detouring, to pinpoint the treasure she sought today.
For, today, she sought the third and most multifaceted, and for it perhaps the brightest Jewel, amongst the Three Refuges.
The community of the Sangha.
Nazrin alighted, and briefly waved, smiling lightly at the yamabiko tending the grounds outside—shocking her into blessed silence, and leaving the karakasa who had been chattering away with her till then feeling suddenly quite enervated and peckish. She passed on inside, hardly noticed by nyūdō or sea-ghost, or by the multitude of other supplicants human and yōkai alike, such is the inborn subtlety of a mouse; and she simply revelled awhile contently in the familiar air, wandering astern and aloft and amidships as she pleased.
But in all whom she passed, it soon came to seem, she felt a nervous energy, subdued but just barely detectible. It was as if there were something hovering on the cusp of every lip, in the wake of some wonderful and marvellous untold thing; and yet out of that same wonder were none willing to give it voice, and thereby wing, in fear of losing it forevermore to the wideness of the world.
Perhaps that was why the tiger came bounding up, and eagerly pulled Nazrin close aside. For a fear of such a paltry kind was banished instantly, by the presence alone of the diligent little mouse.
The tiger spoke hastily to her, hastily and breathlessly, of what had transpired only a brief hour or two ago. She spoke in words that seemed to be at once faint and distant, as if describing a hazy vision or a dream; and yet close and urgent, as if time had not ticked an instant away from the very last moment of its occurrence. She spoke of piercing eyes which hushed all beneath their thousand-league command, a majesty that brought the very heart to kneel, unbidden by word or gesture of any sort, and finery of clothing and flowering ornament beyond the outermost reach of any mortal artifice. She spoke of silver hair, and alabaster beauty, and an ageless voice at once terrible and sublime, indeed numinous as a very Buddha’s … who yet had come, not to teach, but to make humblest supplication.
And the mouse understood what the tiger had not.
Nazrin tilted her head up to the avatar of Bishamonten, a smile of untold satisfaction playing on her lips.
And, when she finally spoke, it was with the rapt audience of both avatar and, indeed, that distant, northward Heavenly King:
Ah, that was interesting and different. Not much on the site on Nazrin and not that much about actual Tengu plotting. I wouldn't have guessed the ending or the conflict by how the story began but it was a fun ride and several of 2hus that don't get that much attention appeared. I look forward to any future stories of yours.
>Poor Robin, 1756, … ditto >Kojiki, Ō no Yasumaro, 711; Chamberlain translation, 1882 >Blinkenlights, apocryphal >Touhou Bunka Shinpō ~ Alternative Facts in Eastern Utopia, ZUN, 2017; my own fragmentary translation >Jikkinshō, anonymous, 1252; Brownlee translation, 1974 >The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus Bombast, of Hohenheim, called Paracelsus the Great, A. E. Waite, 1894 (I am quite certain Paracelsus himself did not write the Coelum Philosophorum within, and it is the work of either a contemporary imitator or of Waite's his own ... but that is all part of the Paracelsian tradition, after all.) >The Tengu, Dr. M. W. de Visser, 1908 >Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, J. R. R. Tolkien, 1980 >Kaidan Toshiotoko, Zansetsusha Sokyū, 1749; my own fragmentary translation >Shasekishū, Mujū Dōkyō, 1283; Morrell translation, 1985
Loved it. It had Naz; it had jizou booty; it had Tenma... Well, more than the characters who appeared, I very much enjoyed the style of it. Subtle, dry humour is always nice, and your vocabulary (and inventiveness with it) far outstrips mine. Also, tengu affair will always get my interest by default.
Really, though, just getting a Naz story feels like a small blessing. Even though she's my favourite by no small margin, I've not found a story in me to suit her. I slightly opine that she never spoke until the end, leaving the acidic taste of grump only savoured by those she came in contact with, but I understand that's a stylistic choice, and it does work well overall. You've impressed a mouse-lover deeply.
>>203142 The way I conceive it is that she needed the great-tengu to believe he was a few steps ahead of everyone because a virtual nobody (i.e., Naz) was the only one who had 'pieced together' the whole story of the orb. Her entire speech on the Izanagi Objects makes them out to be quite powerful, and likely dangerous in the wrong hands, so they're naturally a coveted thing for those in the tengu power structure who want to cut a place for themselves. If nothing else, the lady Tenma is looking out for her own interests as a (I suppose) stabilising force on the mountain... or, if nothing else, as a political actor holding onto the near-supreme seat of power she sits on.
Then again, I suppose the full reasoning is neither here nor there, and knowing it in full is opposed to the purposes of the story. Tengu and esoterica go hand-in-hand, after all.