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[X] Hang out with Meiling, chat.
-[X] Ask her about the farmer (and kappa) she saw. Maybe their perspective could reveal something.

Leaving Patchouli behind you, you walked over towards the tree where Meiling was lounging. You thought for sure you'd need to announce your presence with a cough or something, but she spoke without opening her eyes.

"So Patchy's banished you from her magical domain, huh?"

You shrugged. "She gave me the choice whether or not to stick around."

"Surprised you came over, then. Every magician around here seems to be all magic, all day. Or did she finally get under your skin?"

"The constant paranoia does get tiring," you said with a sigh, "But that wasn't it. I'll have every chance to look at whatever secondary binding she creates later. Actually having a chance to relax and talk has been much rarer the past few days."

"And you're spending that chance bugging me?"

"You're kind of the only person from the mansion I haven't really talked much with, so..."

One eye opened, the better to raise an eyebrow. "You've talked a lot with Flandre?"

"That I'm confident surviving talking with," you amended. "Out of curiosity, does she turn down the lethality for you guys, or-"

Meiling actually opened both eyes, giving you an aside glance. "If you're going to hang out, could you turn that off?"

"The illusion? I don't mind, but if someone comes-"

Meiling rolled her eyes. "Nobody's around for at least a mile, and having you look and sound like Koakuma is damned creepy."

"... says the youkai who shares a house with two vampires, a devil, and Sakuya."

"Right, so I know what I'm talking about."

You chuckled, stopping to consider it. If Meiling was capable at her job (and you had a feeling Sakuya wouldn't tolerate her otherwise), you could just take that at face value, so the odds of being seen were low. And even if you were seen, it's not like that would matter much. You'd kept a much lower profile than Sumi, so most of Gensokyo would just see you as some guy hanging out with Meiling. Besides, most of the youkai who knew your face and would do something about it could see through your illusions anyway. (And wasn't that a depressing thought?)

You pulled the ring off your finger, stashing it in a pocket as you looked over at Meiling. "As long as you're sure, I suppose Patchouli can't complain too much. Still, I'm surprised that this of all things is what bugs you."

With your disguise dropped, she finally turned to look at you. "It's cause you look like Koakuma. Having you look and sound like her is... off."

"Is there a problem with the disguise?" you asked.

"No, not that. Dead ringer, actually. It's just..." Meiling gestured aimlessly.

"... it's hard to be mean to the spitting image of your youkai kid sister?" you guessed, offering a slight smile.

Meiling snorted. "If anything, she'd be Patchy's kid sister. Please call her that, by the way."

You shook your head. "Maybe after this incident is behind us. But you were saying?"

"It's hard to describe. You look like her, you sound like her, but you don't really feel like her. Koakuma's always so innocent and earnest, you know?"

You tilted your head, frowning. "Not that I've known her long, but my read on her was more mischievous."

"There's a bit of that too, but it's more childlike." Meiling sighed. "That, and Patchouli clamps down on it most of the time. The only one who can get away with anything in the library is Marisa, and that's because-"

"She's shameless and has ridiculous firepower?" Meiling looked a little surprised, and you smiled. "Satori's told me a bit about her thefts, and let's just say her danmaku left an impression."

Meiling folded her arms and scowled. "Her breaking in gets me in trouble so often."

"If it makes you feel better, she's gotten me in more trouble in the past couple of days," you said, earning a chuckle. "But returning to the point, do I need to act differently to successfully pass as Koakuma?"

"It's that. That right there."

"I'm sorry?"

"Koakuma's very straightforwards, very bad at hiding things, wears her emotions on her sleeve. She's innocent to the point of being naive and distractable despite Patchy's best efforts. She's not focused and calculated. She doesn't direct conversations, she has no idea how to manipulate."

A touch of childlike behavior, then. That wouldn't be too hard to imitate if need be, but still. "Do I really seem manipulative?"

"Are you?"

That was just it, wasn't it? Most of what you'd said and done since coming to the mansion had been calculated. The right words could literally save Satori's life, or yours. Appearing trustworthy and getting the mansion's residents to believe you was vital. And if you knew what people wanted and could guess how they thought, it wasn't hard to work out what buttons to press for the desired result.

For instance, Sakuya was a servant, through and through. Completely dedicated to Remilia, but she'd respect similar dedication in someone else. Playing up your relationship with Satori, repeatedly putting her first above yourself, you knew that would win points with her. And so you did. You'd gained her sympathy, and if not her trust, at least her consideration and a little leeway.

It was manipulation, at least a little. Wasn't all persuasion, in the end? But what other choice was there? When words were your only weapon and lives hung in the balance, what could you do except wield them to the best of your ability?

So far, honesty had been the best policy with Sakuya and the others, so you could take refuge in that. But people prefer comforting lies to the truth. What would you do if Remilia's urban legend couldn't be fixed? Tell Sakuya and accept the consequences? Or lead them all on and bide time for an escape?

(That was another reason you appreciated Satori. You couldn't lie to her, and she would actively call you out if you tried.)

You weren't sure. But for that worst case, building trust would be useful either way. Whether to convince them that you'd done everything you could and survive... or for lying to their faces and running away. It wasn't the best way to think, but you couldn't not see it. And the stakes were too high not to consider it.

So... yes. The answer to Meiling's question was obviously yes. And she seemed to at least suspect that. But was it better to admit it, or maintain plausible deniability?

[-] Deflect the question with humor. "Yes, that's it exactly. This is all just part of the twenty-sixth step in my master plan."
[-] Be open about it. "I can be. I try not to be."
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[X] Be open about it. "I can be. I try not to be."
Better to be honest about it than not.
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Looks like Meiling is excellent at reading people.

It also makes me feel like she really, really cares about the other residents.

It even translated into Koakuma disguise tips. Made me feel a bit bad about considering using her. Almost feels like Meiling is giving us a taste of our own medicine.

I wonder if we can ask her about the fake Sumi she saw, maybe we could pick out some inconsistencies with the real one because we know her so well.

To be fair, we believe know she's a fake so there's no real need to confirm it to ourselves, either.

Anyway, it's best to be straight with her here, honesty has been our best strategy and it feels like she'd appreciate it.

Still, there is much irony in the fact we are considering what "the best" response here is in the first place. Proof in itself.

So, yeah.

You are who you are, Greg, but you need to know your worst side to know your best.

[X] Be open about it. "I can be. I try not to be."
-[X] Note the irony involved.

If nothing else, it find it an actually rather funny (if somewhat depressing) self-deprecating joke.

(And surprisingly candid.)
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- [X] Be open about it. "I can be. I try not to be."
- [X] "I mean for all you know, I could just be trying to get on you girls' good side now so I can stab you all in the back later."

(...Or something along the lines of that second part.)
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[x] "Yes, that's it exactly. This is all just part of the twenty-sixth step in my master plan to not be killed by the mansion's residents."
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- [X] Be open about it. "I can be. I try not to be."
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[X] Be open about it. "I can be. I try not to be."
-[X] Note the irony involved.
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[X] Be open about it.

You sighed. "I can be. I try not to be."

You glanced over to see Meiling's reaction, but the gate guard watched you impassively, letting the conversation lapse into silence. You knew this trick, it was an unspoken invitation for you to keep talking, to fill the silence, to try to justify yourself and give Meiling a better read on you as a person. It was more social savvy than you'd expected. Had the gate guard guarded prisoners before, perhaps? Or was she simply better socially than the mansion's other residents? Not enough information to tell just yet.

There were a couple ways to respond to such a ploy. One was to simply shut up and not play your interrogator's game. To cut your losses, accept however guilty you looked, and treat that as the end of the matter.

It was an option that was rarely taken. People hated feeling like they'd made a bad impression, and so they'd do whatever they could to try and justify it, explain how what they did was reasonable and not actually their fault. This usually resulted in them digging themselves in deeper than the dwarves in Moria.

Trying to talk your way out of this would be a mistake, and writing the conversation off as a lost cause wasn't much better. Which meant you needed to try to explain without trying to look like you were making excuses. A fine line to walk, but there was nothing better to try.

"How to put this... well, sometimes a conversation is like playing chess."

Meiling blinked, non-plussed, which was hardly a surprise given your weird metaphor. That was intentional. It gave you a little time to think things out, talk casually, and seem relatable before moving back to the matter at hand. "Each side has their own turn, whether to speak or to play, and each side has their own plan for how they want things to unfold, with whoever has the better plan usually winning. And on top of that, the moves you make influence what your opponent does. Sometimes it's a subtle dance that takes time until one side finally loses patience, and other times it's a question of who can go for the throat most effectively."

You could go a bit further. An accusation the other side had to respond to was putting them in check, for instance. But too much detail would be a distraction, and you did need to return to the point. "In particular, if you're good at the game, you can predict your opponent's moves. Not completely, they'll usually have multiple options and sometimes you'll get surprised, but you'll usually have a good idea of what they want to do, and how to stop them from doing it. And from there? You keep them off balance, force them to respond to your own threats, and just pile on the pressure until they crack and you get what you want."

You were never actually great at chess, funnily enough. Oh, you were good enough to beat casual players, but Sumireko just demolished you over and over again. You found it easier to read people than pawn structures.

"The thing is, once you get good at the game, once you start seeing the possible moves and how to manipulate your opponent... you can't just turn that ability off. You can ignore it, intentionally make bad moves, try to give them a chance, explain the position, do what you can to make the game fair and enjoyable for them too... or you could be cutthroat and press your advantage for all it's worth."

You shrugged. "The metaphor breaks down a bit there. Obviously there's no implied indictment for being too good at chess... except possibly in how much of your time you've wasted."

"Don't say that in front of the others." Meiling said, smirking slightly. "Patchouli and Remilia both play religiously. Sakuya would join in too, if only 'cause Remilia likes it."

"What can I say? Every self-proclaimed intellectual fancies themselves a chess master." you said wryly.
"But yes, I know how to manipulate people. I'd be shocked if Patchouli hadn't told you that much. Probably with a warning attached not to trust me. I won't pretend it's a skillset I acquired for good reasons, but it's one I have."

"Do you have this conversation a lot?" she asked, looking thoughtful.

"Only in the past couple of days. Let's just say recent events have made the question of trustworthiness extremely relevant, even with the various measures you've taken to... well, encourage honesty."

"In some ways that's the problem," Meiling said. "Someone that's trusted at knifepoint won't just play along once the knives are gone."

"Those knives are still pointed somewhere very important. We can talk like this because I trust Sakuya not to actually do anything without reason, but I have no illusions what will happen to Satori if I try anything." Ironically, it probably wouldn't be Sakuya. The maid was practical to the end, and killing Satori after your hypothetical escape wouldn't help Remilia. (Not that Sakuya would hesitate to kill if she had cause, but self-sabotaging vengeance wasn't enough of one.) Flandre would be the executioner if it came to that.

Meiling shrugged. "Then you're still at knife-point, just indirectly."

"True. Really though, even if Satori was free, escaping on my own isn't a realistic possibility. Patchouli being able to remotely lock down my magic through the binding shuts down just about every plan I might try. The best shot would be to provoke a fight between you two and someone strong, then sneak off in the confusion. Which would still leave me without magic, wearing a tracker, and with a vengeful Sakuya hunting for me."

"Are you trying to convince me I don't have to do my job?"

"Getting the guard to fall asleep is a classic part of any prison break," you said drily. "But no, I'm attempting something different. The best thing I can do for my own situation is to work with your group. My goal is to slowly win your trust through active cooperation, and convince you all that the knives aren't actually necessary."

She raised an eyebrow. "Really. You'll play nice, no strings attached."

"It's not the best precedent to set for any future youkai kidnapping rings after me, but that's a problem for future Greg."

Meiling didn't rise to the jab. "Yeah, no. When you hit someone and they try to get you to lower your guard, that means a sucker punch is coming."

"I'll admit that's an option too." You chuckled at Meiling's look of surprise. "What? I'm trying to be honest here. And it's not like you'd believe me if I pretended it wasn't. But we do actually share some common ground."

"Because..."

"Because Mamizou tricked, trapped and framed me and Sumireko both? Because Yukari's already put me through my own personal hell and expressed an interest in having me as her permanent magical slave? The same people that screwed Remilia also have it out for me. And it's not like I'd stand any chance against either of them. I can't even fly on my own!"

Meiling looked at me thoughtfully. Hesitated, glanced over towards Patchouli, still working away with magic. "Did you plan out this talk too?"

That surprised you. You were expecting some flavor of reflexive denial, or at least some reaction to the contents of what you'd just said. "Not really. Not more than I plan any conversation, at least. Why?"

"What you just said? It's like Remilia when she gets going. There's a fierceness to it, like killing intent but with words." The vampire's first line of defense looked you dead in the eye. "You either meant that or you're a bloody good actor. And one with charisma either way."

"Thank you, I think?"

Meiling continued, ignoring you. "And with a logical argument relating to your... thing. If you came up with all that off the cuff, that's more worrying."

"To be fair, unplanned doesn't mean unprepared. I figured there was a better than even chance I'd have to talk to you about my trustworthiness at some point. It wasn't why I came over to chat, but I'd been mentally rehearsing lines for that for the past hour." And you were sure you'd come up with better ones now that it was too late.

"Hm..." Meiling hummed, before shaking her head. "What were you here for then?"

The segue was clear, and it left you feeling a little frustrated. You'd have liked to talk a bit more, plead your case a little longer, and in particular gotten more of Meiling's thoughts on the matter. Instead you had the distinct feeling that she'd given you the obvious objections just to see what you'd say, and how you'd say it. Still, there was little choice but to move on.

[-] Ask what Gensokyo's like normally. It'd be nice to find out what the place is like outside of life-threatening incidents.
[-] Ask about the human and kappa that had been through here.
[-] Ask about the fake Sumireko Meiling had met.
[?] Write-in.
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[x] Ask about the human and kappa that had been through here.
the heck's up with that
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[X] Ask about the fake Sumireko Meiling had met.
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Alright, so let's run through these.

Option 1's probably useful for more general social ammo. Words are our weapon, and learning more about the place is the juiciest potential for applicable tidbits for dealing with general problems.

Option 2 isn't nearly as interesting to me. It's insight, and it might contain a nugget of something helpful, but it doesn't gain as much.
At the same time, that is also valuable in a way. I know we literally just talked about trying not to be manipulative, but because it isn't particularly useful, talking about it helps give an impression that we're not always trying to gain something out of a conversation. Of course, that's being manipulative to prove we're not being manipulative, which is a headache.

Option 3 is most useful for our specific problem of fake Sumi. Its value in knowledge is immediately and evidently apparent, and I don't need to say much. We know what we get if we ask about that.

Ignoring any tricksy write-ins that try to weave multiple options together, they all have benefits associated with them. No wrong answers, follow your heart.

[X] Ask what Gensokyo's like normally. It'd be nice to find out what the place is like outside of life-threatening incidents.
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[X] Ask what Gensokyo's like normally. It'd be nice to find out what the place is like outside of life-threatening incidents.
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Well, we tried.

Pretty much the expected response of her, but can't blame her for that. Not really, anyway.

>>205409 makes some fair points, but I quite strongly disagree with some of the implications/conclusions mentioned.

Asking about Gensokyo normality is basically small talk, it doesn't actually give us anything credible for the situation at hand.
The main reasons to talk about that is if we considered staying, which is not something I think Greg wants to talk about, or trying to butter up Meiling some more.
Making somebody think of happy memories or better times can improve their mood.
That doesn't sound like much, but for somebody like Greg putting somebody in that kind of mindspace makes it easier for him to be seen in a positive light.
But that'd be exactly the thing he just talked about. Manipulation.
This is a topic best left after everything is behind us.

Option 2 is actually very informative, and probably where I disagree the most with the aforementioned take.
Having a third party entirely unrelated to us experience the same effects could prove valuable insight into what the hell is going on with the village.
As we figured, the farmer being affected completely threw out the notion of it being attributed to "race".
Of course, we doubly confirmed that when we got Greg to see the same when we experimented with the binding just now.
Still, their account could be very useful.

Knowing more about fake Sumi doesn't actually prove anything to us, because we believe know that she wouldn't do something like this.
Nor does it really prove our innocence, because we can't actually do anything with that info aside from say she isn't like that.
Very trusted expert testimony, I'm sure.
Still, having the account could help us get closer to figuring out what's the deal with the impostor.
So far we've basically just assumed it's Mamizou, which while a decent guess, isn't entirely proven beyond a doubt.

I don't have any questions of my own to ask at this time, but I'll keep thinking of any write-in questions.

In short, I think following up on the human and the kappa might let us deal with the village quicker; but the Sumi info could help us solve the greater mystery, so we can ask that afterwards if there is time.
The small talk about Gensokyo can be left for now.

[X] Ask about the human and kappa that had been through here.
If there is time:
-[X] Ask about the fake Sumireko Meiling had met.
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[X] Ask about the human and kappa that had been through here.

>>205409
>>205411

After reading their thoughts for this vote, I feel this is the right way to go.
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[X] Ask about the fake Sumireko Meiling had met.
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[X] Ask about the human and kappa that had been through here.
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[X] Ask about the human and kappa that had been through here.
If there is time:
-[X] Ask about the fake Sumireko Meiling had met.
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