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One day, I looked up and realized I was surrounded by books.
Stacks of them covered my writing desk. Piles of dusty leather and paper-backed volumes were scattered around the floor of my study. Some small leaflets rested in precarious balance on the arms of my chair, threatening to fall in a messy pile of paper if I breathed in the wrong direction.
Different thicknesses, weights, bindings and writings. Some had colorful and ornate covers, hand painted landscapes and portraits meant to represent the book’s content. Others had only printed titles on the spines. There were many thick tomes, reference and thesis, dictionary and treatise and lecture. There were many more lighter books, novels of every possible genre, small booklets of poetry written in both the old and new languages.
Books were everywhere. No order or organization. Just books piled upon books, held up with a foundation of books, topped with a spire of more books. It was untidy.
For one second, I was short of breath. I inhaled deeply, and regretted it. There was a deep itch in my chest, and I coughed hard to clear it. I covered my mouth with my hand, to keep from hacking all over the books. I felt the heat and moisture of my breath against my palm. I coughed one last time, got my breathing under control.
How unladylike. I was dehydrated. I needed some tea. Or better, some wine. I took a breath and called for the help.
“Fairies!” I yelled. “Come he—”
That was more than my dry lungs could manage. A burning scratch rose into my throat, and I coughed again. It was deeper this time. I coughed longer and harder. I covered my mouth again, and shook out my hand after. I hoped I had not expectorated.
“Fairies!” I yelled again, afraid to shout any more. I gave conscious effort to breathing evenly.
After a silent moment, there came the faint sound of slippers padding on the stone tile floor. A girl poked her head around the door frame, as if checking for traps. She looked up and down, to the corners of my study, before finally looking at me.
“What are you doing here?” I said. My voice held if I spoke at normal volume. “I called for the fairies. You are supposed to be searching for À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Have you found the sixth volume yet?”
The girl stepped in the door as I spoke. I call her girl, but she was not human. This was an odd breed of youkai, the only one of her kind I have ever known. She is taller than I, pale and slim of figure. She has no wings on her back, neither those of a fairy nor the bat wings of a vampire. But she does have a small, entirely useless pair off the sides of her head. These were dark and ribbed like some conception of dragon wings. Their bases were hidden under an uncombed mop of red hair. She wore a flowing dress mostly white and black. As she stood at my study’s door, she continually wrung her hands and looked down at the floor. She would not cease fidgeting in my presence.
“N- no, Lady Patchouli,” she said. “I thought, um....” She swallowed. “Miss Sakuya called all the fairies upstairs. So I thought I might—”
“Sakuya did what?” I said. I tried to stand, but I was pinned in place. I only then remembered a twenty-pound book was in my lap. I tried not to look foolish, but I fear I failed.
“I think it’s for the birthday party,” said the youkai girl. “Sakuya said she needed all the help she could get. But she told me to stay down here, probably because I’d do more harm than good.” She tried to smile, but did not quite get there. “I guess I’d be spilling and breaking things all over the place. So if it’s okay, I can help you while the fairies—”
“It most certainly is not okay!” I said. The youkai girl flinched, as if she deserved my anger. I hoisted the mighty book off my lap and tried to set it on my armrest. I forgot the pile of leaflets there until too late. The big book had no balance or friction. It fell, landed on the floor with a thick whump. The leather booklets pattered down around it.
“Kuso!” I spat, in my best old-language accent. I stood and looked at the mess surrounding my chair. I decided my study was no less organized than it had been twenty seconds ago. I turned and stalked towards the door. I took my book of spellcards off the desk as I passed.
The youkai girl stood frozen at the door, her hands bunched at her breast. The wings on her head were so tense that they shuddered.
“Come with me, Koa,” I said. I grabbed my brooched nightcap off the hat hook near the door.
“Y- yes, Lady Patchouli,” she said. She stepped aside to let me out of the study. I passed her and stomped out into the library. One of my height does not make a menacing presence when stomping anywhere, but I think the fire of discontent inside me more than made up the difference.
The narrative declaration of identity is obligatory, so allow me to clear that minor matter. My name is Patchouli Knowledge. I am youkai servant, attendant and librarian of Remilia Scarlet. Those reading this text already know me, so further self-description will be omitted. However, not all know my assistant. I spare a few words for her.
Several months before the time of this writing, the residents of the Scarlet mansion chanced upon a vagrant youkai. Specifically, our door guard, Hong Meiling, challenged a passerby with unnecessary zeal. And by challenged, I do not mean the customary function of a guard. Not the proper reaction a guard shows a newcomer, to ask for name and purpose, and to relent if an appropriate response is given. A good door guard might have done so, but Hong is not a good door guard. She is, however, an excellent martial artist, and even better at raw brutality. Those talents she enacts whenever possible. She chased down the poor wandering youkai and beat her senseless.
In ordinary cases, I would not have given Hong’s behavior a second thought. Many wild fairies try to enter our mansion, usually in the hope of stealing food. Hong is effective at keeping them out. But this particular youkai girl was not a mere fairy. The first time I saw her, broken and bleeding from thirteen wounds, I was intrigued. I had never seen a youkai of her like. I was happy to learn she had high-level intelligence, that she could speak and reason on the same level as many humans.
She had first approached the mansion with hopes of finding food and shelter. She was not suited to live in the wild. She was dirty, naked, starved mostly to death. With my mistress’s permission, I took her on as an assistant. I needed the help keeping track of all the books in the library, a task often too great to delegate to the fairies. I clothed her, fed her, and facilitated her reading comprehension. She is a fast learner.
When she had healed from Hong’s abuse well enough to speak, the first thing I asked was her name.
“Uh... n- name?” were the first words she ever spoke to me.
“Anata ga namae wa?” I said. She might have been one of the few youkai who spoke the old language.
That earned no better reaction from her. She only looked at me in terrified confusion.
“What is your name?” I said.
“I, uh....” She took a moment to gather her words. “I don’t think I have a name. I never call myself anything.”
“Then, for the present, I will refer to you as Koakuma,” I said.
More confusion from the youkai girl. She did not know if I was insulting her.
“Does... does that mean something?” she said.
I nodded. “An old language description of your likeness.”
We never decided a permanent name, so it became Koakuma. To bring an end to regression to the matters past, she now followed me across the library, padding along after me. Her dress flowed and trailed behind her. Her legs were longer than mine, but she did not dare walk in front of me. Though I have never ordered her to stay behind me.
“Where are we going, Lady Patchouli?” she said. We had made it to the library’s heart. We walked over the circle in the middle of the floor, the reflective marble etched with the star made of two inverse triangles.
“Upstairs,” I said. I carried my spellcard folder under one arm. With my other hand, I tightened my nightcap. My long ponytails swung behind me as I walked.
Koakuma swallowed again. I was not facing her, so I saw none of her mannerisms. But I could hear it in her voice. It was one of her anxious habits.
“Too see Sakuya?” she said.
“And the mistress, if needs be,” I said. “That maid has no right to take my staff from me, birthday parties or no.”
“Um. She didn’t say she planned on keeping them. She just needed their help—”
I stopped mid step, whirled around to face her. My ponytails wrapped around my hips momentarily before settling back behind me. Koakuma stepped back, as if the force of my glare were enough to push her.
“Do you justify her behavior?” I said. “Can you present acceptable reasoning that allows Sakuya to take my fairies for her own use, without ever asking my permission? Without even informing me?”
Koakuma’s jaw worked up and down, and she folded her arms around herself as if she had suddenly become cold. Her teeth nearly chattered.
“I, um, I—”
“I thought not,” I said. I turned again and kept walking to the library’s exit. I cleared a dozen steps before I realized she was not following me. I looked back over my shoulder, saw her standing on the marble star as though her feet were rooted to it. She seemed not to know if she was still welcome to follow me.
“Koakuma!” I said. “Come!”
“Yes, Lady Patchouli!”
She hurried after, slowing to a walk once again behind me.
We went up only the first flight of stairs to reach the ground floor. The kitchen was on this level, to allow easiest access to the cellar and inbound supplies from outside the mansion. I expected Sakuya to be there, and my expectations were met.
The kitchen was in chaos. Fairy maids flew in all directions, carrying dishes and food in various stages of preparation. Doors constantly flipped open and closed. Cabinets and pantries, the stairs down to the cellar, the double-doors that led up to the dining room. The noise was enough to split one’s head open. Clattering, shouted orders and requests to be heard over the ambiance of nine other things being said simultaneously. Flatware and cookware clashed and clanged everywhere. Not even counting the smells. I covered my nose at first, unprepared for the mismatch of vegetable, fruit, grain and meat odors all mixing at once.
I stood in the kitchen’s entrance from the hallway. Koakuma was at my side.
“Wow,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many fairies in one place.”
“That is because half of them are mine,” I said.
In the middle of it all was the head maid herself. Sakuya stood over the island in kitchen’s center. She had a heavy cutting board on the counter, and was pushing a large cleaver through a side of beef. She cut off thin steak slices, and yelled at the fairies each time the slices stacked up.
“You! Take these! Put them in a quarter inch of oil and turn them on a low flame.” Sakuya nodded at another fairy. “You! Take these and rub them down with that spice mix I gave you. No, not that one, you moron! That’s plain salt! And you, take these! Put each one between two slices of the garlic bread and put them on the bottom stone of the second oven. But don’t light the fire yet! They’ll burn before we’re done with the rest of this.”
Then Sakuya noticed us. She ignored me.
“Koa!” she shouted across the kitchen. “I told you to stay out of here. If you touch a single fork before dinner’s ready, I swear!”
“She is here at my request,” I said.
“Great!” said Sakuya. Her shoulders worked for each cut of meat. “When my request counts for something down in the library, then we’ll talk about you dragging people into the kitchen. But until then, what I say goes in this room. Take Koakuma out of here, please.”
“You have already violated the very agreement to which you allude,” I said. “If it were true to say we each had our domains of authority, then it is not I who have failed to respect those domains.”
Sakuya shook her head. “I don’t have time for moonspeak. Koa, translate for me.”
“She’s mad that you took the library’s fairies,” said Koa.
“Talk to the mistress about that!” said Sakuya. “Fat lot of good they’re doing me anyway. They couldn’t knead dough to save the world.”
“Now you know why I have them trained to dust and organize books,” I said.
Sakuya threw her knife down on the cutting board. It bounced and landed on the floor halfway across the room. One fairy ducked out of the way just in time to avoid dismemberment.
“What choice did I have?” Sakuya yelled. She left the meat behind and crossed the kitchen to us. “The mistress interrupts my work to let me know we’re throwing a birthday party. Great. Wonderful. Fabulous. Let’s all celebrate and have a good time. Then she tells me the party is planned to start in six hours! How am I supposed to have a party ready in six hours? You tell me!”
I tightened my hold on my spellcard folder. Koakuma cowered behind me, even though our difference in height offered her no cover.
“You are acting threatening, Sakuya,” I said. “I suggest you calm yourself.”
Sakuya’s fists both clenched. Her knuckles were white. She seemed ready to dish out more verbal lashing, but held her tongue. She glanced down at my spellcard book.
“You calm yourself,” she said. Then she noticed the noise behind her had stopped. The fairies all stared at her with open-mouthed gazes, as if waiting for bloodshed. Some had even paused in mid air, their wings beating to keep them in place.
Sakuya slowly turned. She gave the fairies what must have been an exceptionally nasty look. She took in a deep breath.
“GET BACK TO WORK!” she shouted. The fairies animated in unison. They doubled their efforts, moving faster than they had when I entered.
I turned and headed out the door, stepping past Koakuma. I walked out into the hallway.
“Come,” I said.
Koa glanced back into the kitchen once, and then followed after me. The kitchen door swung shut behind us. The muffled sound of an angry maid yelling at dozens of fairies slowly fell away.
“But,” said Koa, walking behind me again. “You didn’t get your fairies back.”
“Nor will I, through that method,” I said. “Unless I kill Sakuya.”
“Humans can be quite irrational,” I said. “Especially when stressed, which they often are. Besides that fact, Sakuya is not the one I should speak to. I believe I will take her advice.”
“So, we’re, um.”
I nodded. “We are going to see the mistress, yes.”
As it happened, we did not need to look far. The mistress was just next door, in the dining area. The room where House Scarlet ate its meals together was less barren and empty this evening. Though the blackness of a mid-winter evening reigned beyond the windows, the room itself was lit well with sparklamps. Fairies put up decorations. Three had been assigned to arranging table spreads. Many of the room’s tables and chairs were festooned with ribbons and bows and doilies and other frippery. Two other fairies strung up a large banner from two chandelier hooks on the ceiling. The mistress stood on a high chair, directing them.
“Spread it out more on the left,” she said, waving that direction. “Good. Now up. Pull it up! There you go.”
The two fairies’ wings glowed bright with effort. They beat like humming birds, their wings disappearing in rapid movement. At last they hooked their cargo to the ceiling. The fabric banner spread into the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY FLANDRE! in giant red letters.
“Perfect!” said the mistress. She hopped off her chair. “Now you two. Help is needed in the kitchen. I can hear Sakuya screaming, which must mean everything is exactly on schedule. Go make sure she doesn’t pop a vein. Hers or otherwise.”
The two fairies dropped several feet at once, obviously glad to be relieved of the banner several times their combined weight. They bowed to their mistress and flew across the room to the kitchen’s double doors. A short sound of bedlam echoed behind them as the doors flapped shut.
The mistress watched them go. She caught me in the corner of her eye, and turned to face Koakuma and I approaching from the dining room’s far entrance.
Remilia put her hands on her hips. “I was wondering when you were going to ascend from the abyss.”
We stepped up near the table. Both Koakuma and I bowed to our mistress.
“I had every intention of attending the celebration punctually,” I said. “As a matter of fact, the work of researching my present to Flandre is what kept me.”
“Research?” said Remilia. “Something bright and shiny is more than enough to please her. What gift for Flandre could possibly involve research?”
“My lady,” I said, “would it not be best to reveal that at the time of gift-giving?”
“Suit yourself,” said Remilia. “You’d better hurry, whatever it is. China’s done a good job of keeping the birthday girl occupied, so far. But even those two get bored of staring contests and playing Throw the Vampire.”
“Um!” said Koakuma. “I have a present for Flandre too. It’s probably nowhere near as good as anything you guys got her. But since you’ve all been so generous to me, I thought it only fair to... um, you know, do something for her.”
“That’s nice of you, Koa,” said Remilia. “Now would you two mind lending a hand? I have a dozen tables and four dozen chairs that need sprucing, decorating and reinforcing. You know how rowdy Flandre gets when she’s excited.”
I cleared my throat. Physical labor is not my forte, and I use all available routes of rhetoric and circumstance to avoid it.
“We will lend our assistance if you require it,” I said. “But if I may, another matter first. I interrupted my work on Flandre’s gift to bring a concern to your attention.”
Remilia waited. Her eyes narrowed slightly, a change of expression so small that only the attentive would notice. I too well knew the meaning of the look on my mistress’s face. Speak, she said wordlessly, but ensure that I do not feel the precious moments I have given you are wasted.
“Regarding my staff,” I said. “They were in the midst of assisting me in my preparations for the party, but disappeared in a manner that seemed sudden to me. I called for them, but only available was Koakuma, who informed me that Sakuya had spontaneously recruited all the fairies at my disposal. She has them working in the kitchen now, a task to which they are not well suited.”
“I’m aware of this,” said Remilia. “I ordered it.”
I paused. Even the keenest of intellectuals will occasionally find themselves cornered in argument, often because they simply failed to consider the obvious causes and effects. I had assumed Sakuya acted on her own authority, enlisted my fairy maids as a rash and inconsiderate decision. The reality of the situation was no serious hindrance, but I was disappointed with myself. Why had the possibility of circumstances other than my first assumption not occurred to me?
“I see,” I said. “If the reassignment was by your instruction, then I know it was for good reason. But I do have a request. If such balancing of workforce versus workload is required that I must be relieved of my staff, may I be informed of it in advance? So that I may delegate the tasks of managing a library with a reduced number of laborers.”
Remilia’s eyes glowed, brightening and dulling like embers blown upon.
“I’m happy to respond to your request,” she said. “Except that it contains a fallacy.”
I felt my brow bunch. I mentally reviewed my word choice. “Does it?”
“The fairies in this mansion are my staff,” said Remilia. “All of them.”
Again, words failed me. For the first time in several moments, I noticed Koakuma standing beside me. She again had her hands bunched to her chest, and shivered as if about to be blown over by a strong wind. Even so, I admired her courage. Since I had not dismissed her, she dutifully stayed by my side. Even while terrified by the exchange of two mightier beings.
I looked back to my mistress.
“I understand,” I said. I turned, and motioned for Koa to follow me. “I will return to the library and complete my preparations.”
“Another fallacy,” said Remilia to my back. “Yours are complete. Mine, on the other hand, are sorely behind. You and Koa will help me.”
I stopped, dropping both feet to the floor. I stood still for three seconds. It took a moderate effort of will to show no outward signs that I was dissatisfied with my mistress’s order. I did not allow myself to sigh, or snort, or moan, or even my shoulders to slouch.
“As you wish, Mistress,” I said.
As it happened, assisting with the dining room’s decorations was less tedious than I feared. When my mistress mentioned that the tables and chairs were to be reinforced, the intended meaning of the word differed from what Gensokyo’s commoners would understand. To the short-lived humans who establish trades as farmers, carpenters and smiths, to reinforce a piece of furniture means to nail additional material to it. An example is building crossing support bars between a stool’s legs, or adding feet to a table for better balance. These operations necessarily change the object into something heavier, bulkier, and uglier. This is unacceptable treatment for the furnishings of the Scarlet Mansion.
Though carved, smoothed and stained, our tables and chairs are still only wood. Thus, preparing our dining area for Flandre’s inevitable natal day destruction was a task to which I was particularly suited. Wood is one of the five elements of Eastern canon, my specialized branch of magic.
I lay my hand on the bare surface of a tabletop, close my eyes and speak hushed words of the old language. The ambient energies are excited and mobilized by my will. They rush to the table, infusing and surrounding the wood. The fiber of long-dead plant matter is strengthened as if part of a healthy ironwood tree. This spell was originally intended for fortifying armaments of war, when poor villagers had no means of defending themselves but hastily carved bokuto and wooden body plates.
A smile tugged at my lips. Defending the mistress’s home against the most rambunctious of its residents was, doubtless, the most epic of all struggles in which this wood-strengthening spell had been used.
The party was nearly ready to commence. Koakuma had been helping the fairies add place settings and center pieces to each table. The work matched her well, as it involved minimum opportunity for dropping, knocking over, or breaking things out of clumsiness. I risked taking my attention away from her for a moment while I sought out the mistress. I looked around the room, and saw her come from the kitchen. The double doors flapped shut behind her.
“Dinner’s just about done,” said Remilia, walking towards me. “Though you probably noticed the ever-lessening sounds of apocalypse from kitchen’s direction.”
She stepped past me, going deeper into the dining room. She looked side to side and inspected each table she passed. I walked after her.
“The aroma, too, suggests that Sakuya has done fine work.” I inhaled through my nose, and hunger pains tugged at my insides. “However, I have intended to inquire after the meaning of this occasion. It is fair to say this is our first organized celebration since the...” I searched for a good word, and realized there were none. “...events of this most recent passing summer, and Flandre being able to join our daily lives. Yet the date chosen for this celebration, and the subject of it, seem both impulsive and arbitrary. One wonders—”
Remilia stopped, turned to face me. “You preface too much, Patchouli. Ask what you want to ask.”
I swallowed my words, nodded to her. “Is today truly Flandre’s birthday?”
The question caught her off guard, and she blinked. But then she smiled.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never celebrated it before. But for some reason, it seems right to throw a party in the dead of winter. Don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” I said. “Especially in light of our neglecting the turning of the new year, busying ourselves with Flandre’s recovery.”
“That’s why,” she said. “I would have liked our human friends to come as well, but there was no time to send invitations.”
I was held my spellcard folder to my chest, and my grip on it tightened. I forced my muscles to ease.
“There would have been time, had we planned this party several days ahead.” My words betrayed my feelings, giving my mistress support in her hospitality towards the witch and shrine maiden.
Remilia shook her head. “This couldn’t wait. We need closure after last year’s mess. And I need to show that Flandre can now truly be a part of our family.”
As if on cue, the doors on the far side of the room burst open. Everyone turned to see what had caused the noise.
“Help me!” said Hong Meiling, staggering into the dining room. Her clothes were torn, hanging off her body in ragged shreds. Too much of her obscenely well-shaped body showed to maintain any level of modesty, but that seemed the least of her concerns for the moment.
“China!” Remilia yelled across the room. “How many times have I told you not to walk around the house naked? You don’t need to go showing those things off!”
“It wasn’t me!” said Meiling, leaning her weight against a table. “She’s coming! Please stop her!”
One need not guess to whom she was referring.
“I’m hungry!” came the yell form behind Meiling. The voice is difficult to describe. It is best to imagine a combination of a child screaming for its mother and an earthquake tearing hideous rents in the earth.
A blur of rainbow-colored light charged into the dining room. It kicked Meiling in the rear, bucking her forward in a manner that seemed similar how a scarecrow would look if hit with a battering ram. She flopped face-down on the table before her, crushing the center piece and sending utensils flying. The table itself was unharmed, due to my enchantment, but Meiling herself was not as sound. Her center of mass pulled her off the table and she slithered to the floor. There she lay like a broken toy, perhaps a doll whose clothes had been by a perverted child seeking to learn the anatomy underneath.
Remilia looked back at me. “The card! Now!”
I opened my spellcard book to the last page, held it open to my mistress. She yanked a piece of paper out and held it between her middle and forefingers. She turned and dashed towards the source of the rainbow light.
Where Meiling had been a moment ago, there stood Flandre Scarlet. Her wings of iron bars and prism shards overpowered the room’s sparklamps. In one hand she held a long and curved rod of dark steel, tipped with spade-shaped spikes on either end. The artifact Lavatein. She wielded it like a baton, twirling it through her fingers. Her eyes burned bright red.
“Enough stupid games!” she yelled. “I’m hungry! Why are you people keeping me from the food?”
Flandre’s entrance had an effect on the room like a drop of soap to particles floating on the surface tension of water. The fairies rushed away from her. Koakuma ducked under the nearest chair, what little cover it gave her, and cowered there as if she expected the mansion to collapse around her. The only one running towards Flandre was the mistress. She held the spellcard up, yelled its incantation.
“Gravity sign: Atlas Girth!”
Her casting was meticulously timed. After she began shouting the card’s name, but before she had finished, she had leaped onto a table and jumped off. She was airborne for one second, and on a collision course with her younger sister. Flandre held up Lavatein as if to bat Remilia away, but her stance was shaken. The spellcard fired.
Many magic spells emit light. Some do so in complicated ways, mixing colors in strobing patterns that dazzle the eye. This is to the purpose of visually declaring the use of magic to bystanders, or for the sake of boasting. The latter more often than the former. But in the case of Atlas Girth, the spell emits no light. It absorbs.
One instant, Remilia was in air and ready to tackle Flandre with her full weight. The next, my mistress was gone, and a detached black splotch was all that could be seen where she had been. I imagine the astronomical concept of a black hole would look like this, a solid oil slick that bent light around its edges. The apparition hit Flandre, and with much more than Remilia’s full weight.
The black hole dragged Flandre to the floor, behind the table and out of my sight. I could still see the effects of the spell, the wall and doorway beyond appearing warped as if made of jelly and pulled downwards.
Sakuya was suddenly at my side. Her instantaneous movements had long since lost their ability to startle me. She looked exhausted, now out of the dimness of the kitchen. Her hair was uncombed and dark circles were under her eyes.
“Are they at it again?” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “They seem to have established a ritual process.”
“All the same.” Sakuya folded her arms around herself. “I wish they wouldn’t fight so much.”
“Fight is not the correct verb to describe this activity. I would use defy, dominate, and submit.”
“One of these days, I’m going understand what you’re talking about.”
I nodded to the far side of the room. “It is always easier to show than to tell. Let us see for ourselves.”
Sakuya and I crossed the dining room. She stopped along the way to pick up fallen dishes and replace decorations. I surveyed the floor just before the doorway, where Meiling lay with an unnaturally deep concave bend to her lower back. A few feet away, Remilia had Flandre pinned. The black hole effect was gone, but the spell was still in force.
“You must learn to control your temper!” said Remilia, arms and legs trembling. She had both hands clamped on Flandre’s arms, and her knees squeezed Flandre’s thighs to the floor. Lavatein was still in Flandre’s right hand, her knuckles white in her grip. But the staff was harmless if she couldn’t lift it.
Ordinarily, this would be insufficient to keep either of the Scarlet sisters from moving. Both are far stronger than their size and appearance would suggest, but the strength is unnatural. They have no weight to match. Either one weighs only as much as a young human girl. One simply sitting on the other would be futile, since the bottom sister could leverage against the floor and knock away the top sister. The spellcard, of course, gave Remilia the advantage here. Atlas Girth increases the caster’s weight tenfold. She now weighed somewhere in the realm of eight hundred pounds.
The spell was a double-edged sword, however. The added weight was enough to overwhelm Flandre’s strength, when applied in a wrestling pin. But it burdened Remilia every bit as heavily. Her frame shook under the effort of holding herself up. Both sisters were immobile until the spell was released.
“Get off me, Remi!” said Flandre. “China kept distracting me all day because she wants me to starve or something!”
“That’s no excuse to go dislocating vertebrae,” said Remilia. “Look around. You might realize why she was distracting you.”
“All I can see is your big Remi face!” Flandre spat up at her sister. Remilia moved her head to the side, and gave Flandre a view of the banner hanging off the ceiling.
“Hey!” said Flandre. “Why’s my name on that thing?”
“Because,” said Remilia, “we’re celebrating your birthday today.”
Flandre’s eyes grew wide. “Wow! Really? For me?”
“It’s unlikely that we’d celebrate your birthday for anyone else,” said Remilia. “That is, so long as you behave.”
“Sure!” said Flandre. “So, what’s a birthday?”
Silence. I had to bite my lips between my front teeth. Two tables away, Sakuya put a palm to her face.
“It’s a time where the whole family gets together and eats a lot,” said Remilia.
“Oh,” said Flandre. “How’s that different from normal?”
“You get presents,” said Remilia.
“Ah! I see now!” Flandre wiggled under her sister. “Please let me up. I promise to be good.”
Hong Meiling is what human women wish they could be. She possesses immense physical strength, is stunningly beautiful despite giving no attention to her appearance, can make any clothing look like the garments that disappear in adult fiction, and has supernatural healing abilities. Only she can suffer a broken back and attend the dinner table fifteen minutes later. While it is true that any youkai can take physical punishment beyond what kills a human, Hong enjoys exceptional hardiness. Then again, the trait is necessary for her occupation.
Meiling left the dining room to trade for an undamaged dress. While she was gone, the mistress had Flandre sat and readied for the meal. I spent this time coaxing Koakuma out from under a chair.
“Is she gone?” Koa whispered up at me, as if her hiding place were unknown to anyone in the room.
“No,” I said. “But the threat is. Flandre is occupied glowing at the occasion in her honor.”
For those who do not know the Scarlets personally, it requires noting that I used the word glowing literally. The spectral shards of her wings light with emotion, and they now burned cheerfully.
“Not Flandre!” said Koakuma. “I meant China. Is she gone?”
My eyebrows lowered. “Yes, but China was not—”
“She’s the one I’m scared of!” said Koa. “Flandre’s not so scary. All she does is destroy everything and kill you. No big deal. But China, she beats you up. She makes it hurt.”
I had no response ready. For a moment, I pitied Koa. She suffered post-traumatic stress. I had experienced the same, once before, and not as severely as hers. I only had been hit twice by a miko’s gohei, and I remembered the pain for months afterwards. I could only imagine what Koa experienced.
“You are in no danger,” I said. “China does not see you as an intruder. Even if she did, she could not harm you. You are my subordinate, and therefore under my protection.”
Koakuma looked up at me with big youkai eyes. I held my free hand down to her, and she slowly reached up to grasp it. I held her hand firmly, as she did mine, and I pulled her up from the chair. Our height difference disallowed me from pulling her to her feet, but she stood on her own. Hand in hand, I walked her to the table where Remilia and Flandre had seated. Koakuma and I took seats of our own, her beside me.
This left me in awe. For no reason I readily understood, Koakuma trusted me. I wished I knew the motivation behind that trust, and whether it was valid.
Sakuya had finished tidying the mess from Flandre’s tantrum, and she took the other chair beside her mistress. Meiling joined us shortly after, taking the only remaining free seat at this table. She now wore a hybrid between a cocktail dress and nightgown, free of rips and superfluously exposed body parts. The six of us made one table, and the fairies slowly filled the others. Only a few remained up, those who would bring dinner from the kitchen and serve it. They would join the meal once each table was laden.
Remilia put her hands together. She smiled, looking around the room.
“I believe we’re ready,” she said. “Let the party begin.”
As fond as my mistress is of dramatic statements, I did not count the party begun until a full plate of food was before me. Then I saw the fruition of Sakuya’s labors. Her use of the few basic elements of food portrayed levels of creativity and application usually found in better engineers and poets. I do not know how many dishes served at this meal used rice, or bread, or meat cut from the same animal. Such is a testament to Sakuya’s culinary skill.
Here I omit further description of the meal and any concurrent conversation. I have minimum standards on what I believe my readers will consider entertaining or enlightening. Dinnertime chat and the noises of consumption do not meet that standard.
I finished eating before the others at our table. I absently used a spoon to shape iced cream mixed with fruit, the remainder of which I had no appetite for. I have always been the lightest eater of the Scarlet Mansion. Meiling eats most heavily, no doubt to replenish the nutrients lost in her physically demanding line of work. The mistress and her sister burn fats and proteins during their frequent power struggles, and they both clear through hearty portions at their meals. Sakuya’s appetite was next largest after theirs. She who had lived the fewest years of any on the mistress’s senior staff was young even by human standards. Sakuya was still growing. She was already taller than the average Gensokyo woman, but her build suggested she yet had more height to gain. In addition, her secondary sexual characteristics would mature for the next several years as her body optimized itself for the process of childbearing.
I shared none of these occupational, recreational, or hereditary taxes on my metabolism. My intake was sparse in comparison. Koakuma ate nearly as little, though I am not certain if for a lack of appetite or to avoid the appearance of partaking more than I.
Such were the thoughts that occupied me as I waited for the senior staff to satiate themselves. Eventually, Sakuya had her fill, followed by Meiling and the Scarlet sisters. Remilia ordered a group of fairies to clear the dishes, and held up both hands to call the table to order.
“It’s time for gift giving,” she said. “Each of us will offer our presents to Flandre, in order of seniority.” Remilia looked aside, to her sister. “I want you to show gratitude for each gift you get tonight. They have a lot of meaning for us, and so they should for you.”
Flandre bounced up and down in her chair, the crystals of her wings rattling. She brought up Lavatein and held it in both hands. It had been near her for the entire meal.
“Presents!” she said. She grinned liked a human child, showing her sharp front teeth.
“Yes,” said Remilia. “Presents. I’ll begin.” She turned her head to dining room entrance. “Fairies! Bring in the box!”
After a pause, the doors opened to a pair of fairies. They flew over tables as they approached us, carrying between them a wooden chest. They set the chest down before Remilia.
“Thank you,” she told the fairies. “Return to your meals, if you’re not yet done.”
The youkai maids bowed to her before flying off. Remilia laid both hands on the chest, but did not unlatch it.
“Now I don’t want this to seem flashier than it is,” she said, looking around the table to each of us. “I’ve worked on this for a while, but I decided to give it to Flandre only a few hours ago. I warn you all, this isn’t what it first appears to be.”
“And you criticize me of unnecessary preface,” I said. “Please show the gift, Mistress, and let it stand for itself.”
Remilia nodded. She took a deep breath, let it out. She flipped open the latch and lifted back the chest’s lid. She reached in with both hands and lifted, as if hefting up a heavy thing. She brought it from the box and held it up for all to see.
Our reactions were varied. Sakuya stared agape and put a hand over her mouth. Meiling stood abruptly, knocking her chair back and leaning forward to get a closer look. Both Koakuma and I gave wide-eyed gazes.
“Oh wow!” said Flandre, bouncing now as if her chair cushion was a huge spring.
“That cannot be,” I said.
“How pretty,” said Koa.
Remilia held up a crystalline orb, roughly one foot in diameter. Its surface was not smooth, but instead covered with numerous faces like an exquisitely carved diamond. Light refracted through its facets. It distorted and scattered color in seemingly random patterns.
“You could not have found a so large gemstone of such quality,” I said. “They do not exist in Gensokyo, or anywhere, as well as we know.”
“You’re right.” Remilia set the orb on the table, but kept a hold on it. “This isn’t a gemstone. It’s glass. I’ve spent a lot of time making it look like a gem, and I even managed to harden it with some conditioned spells. But a diamond will still cut it. It’s more for appearance than anything. Especially for this.” She turned to Flandre, offered the orb to her. “Here you go, birthday girl.”
Flandre could not have cared less whether the ball were a true gem. She took it in both hands and stuck her nose up against it. She laughed at how the table spread looked through the glass.
“I love it!” she said. She turned from her gift and threw herself at Remilia, wrapping her arms around her sister’s neck in a hug. One wing swung over the table, just barely missing a full mug of drink. “Thank you, Remi!”
“You’re welcome,” said Remilia, patting her back. “But hold still for a second, so the others can see why I gave it to you.”
We saw. With Flandre’s wing now closer to the orb, the rainbow light from her crystal shards blended within the glass. They ceased to be seven different colors, and became solid white. The light overpowered the dining room’s sparklamps. The table and we sitting at it were bathed in the soft glow.
“Fascinating!” I said. “A human scientist once documented this effect. Run light through a prism, and it breaks into its seven base colors. Run those colors through another prism, and they reconstruct. Though if I recall correctly, the angles here should not result in—”
“That scientist wasn’t dealing with vampire wings, was he?” said Remilia. She still had her arms around Flandre, holding her in place. Her sister made no objection.
“I suppose not,” I said.
“Besides,” said Sakuya. “It’s much prettier to see it in person than read about it in a book.”
I offered no response to that.
“A fine gift,” I said. “Shall we move on to the next?”
“So we shall,” said Remilia. She let Flandre go, and helped her put the orb back into its chest. Flandre carefully set it on the floor beside her, then returned to her seat. She soon began rocking her weight back and forth in the chair, getting dangerously close to toppling herself.
“What next?” she said. “Who wants to give me something?”
“It’s Patchouli’s turn,” said Remilia.
Everyone around the table looked to me. I only nodded.
“If it pleases you, Mistress, I respectfully request to withhold my gift until all others have been offered.”
Meiling leaned back in her chair, arms folded under her breasts. She snorted. “You just want to show off.”
I looked to her. “Action cannot be classified as showing off if unadulterated qualities earn the merits of attention and public visibility while absolutely bereft of extraneous attempts to artificially induce those merits.”
Meiling’s mouth hung open. She tired to speak, but was too busy decoding my sentence.
“Patchouli!” said Remilia. “Stop confusing China with big words. Why do you want to show your gift last?”
“The value of the gift would be lessened if offered during the party’s duration, rather than at its conclusion,” I said.
“What are you people talking about?” said Flandre, impatient. “Is someone going to give me something or what?”
“My turn, then.” Sakuya stood, bowed to the table. “I had no time to prepare a proper gift. But when I do offer a part of myself to someone I care about, I want it to be just that. A part of me. Something that no one else could give you. So, as meager as they are, please take these.”
She reached into her apron. The movement alarmed me at first, until I remembered that she kept her throwing knives in another pocket. She pulled out several slips of paper, smaller than typical spellcards. She handed them to Remilia, who gave them to her sister after looking at them.
Flandre took the cards, thumbing through each of them. They were each written over with the same text enclosed in a small border.
“Sakuya meal ticket?” said Flandre. She looked up her. “What’re these?”
“You can redeem each for one breakfast, lunch or dinner prepared by me,” said Sakuya. “You can order whatever you want, and I’ll cook it. No matter how long it takes to prepare. No matter how hard it is to find the ingredients.”
This was an open-ended gift. It seemed a move of desperation from Sakuya. She disliked having her work schedule interrupted. Spending an entire day to prepare whatever ridiculous dish Flandre had in mind would be a severe annoyance to our head maid. For that reason, the offer impressed me.
Flandre smiled and raised one eyebrow in a sinister expression. On a little girl’s face, it was laughable, but it certainly indicated her blood relation to Remilia.
“You’ll make me....” Flandre let a dramatic pause hang. “Anything?”
“Yes,” said Sakuya. She swallowed, her hands bunched tight over her apron. “Anything.”
I tilted my head at the maid, wondering why she was nervous. Then a thought came to me, and I looked elsewhere. This was not only a gift made in desperation for lack of time. It was a test. Sakuya hoped there was a dish Flandre would not ask for.
The dish she had prepared many, many times before last summer.
Flandre laughed under her breath, like a criminal mastermind whose enemies had just played in to her nefarious plan.
“Then you’ll be making a lot of those grilled cheese rice things,” said Flandre.
Sakuya visibly eased. I let out a breath I had not noticed I was holding. Remilia closed her eyes and shook her head. Meiling and Koakuma were oblivious.
“That’s a good present, Sakuya,” said Remilia. “Cooking is one of your strong points, a great way to put yourself into the gift.” She looked to the other end of the table, eager to change the subject. “Your turn, China.”
“Er-hem!” Meiling stood again, and again knocked her chair back. “Unlike the poor turnout we’ve had so far, I have a worthy gift for Flandre. An amazing gift. A magical gift.”
That earned questioning looks from everyone at the table. Meiling knew nothing about magic. Anything she thought to be magical would likely be terrible and deserving of derision.
“Behold!” Meiling had a hand in her gown’s pocket, pulled out a strange object. It was a small metal disc, about two inches wide and a half inch deep. It was mostly brass-colored, with a band of darker metal around the circular face. She held this thing up with an outstretched arm, as if to cast light over the table. Squinting, I could see red printed letters on the brassy surface of it, but they were too small for me to read.
“And what is that supposed to be?” said Remilia.
“It looks like junk!” said Flandre.
“Ho-ho-ho!” Meiling laughed. “So say the ignorant. But watch this mighty item’s mystical enchantments at work!”
She lowered the item to table. She held it just above a fork resting on the tablecloth, a piece of flatware the fairies had neglected to take. The fork moved slightly. Then suddenly, the fork jumped off the tablecloth and stuck to the metal disc as if glued to it.
Meiling laughed again, held up the disc and the fork clinging to it. She turned her hand around in a slow arc, giving all a view.
“Amazing!” said Koakuma. “How did it do that?”
“I haven’t seen that kind of magic before,” said Sakuya.
“I don’t think it’s magical,” said Remilia. “Patchouli?”
I held a hand out to Meiling. “May I see?”
“If you wish.” Meiling handed the disc to me. “But don’t you dare try to unravel the secrets of this spell. It may be too much for even you.”
“Oh dear. How could I ever take such a risk?” The disc was cold and heavy in my hands. I pulled the fork off it, and held them only an inch apart. They tugged together by an unseen force, as if naturally attracted to one another. Which, of course, they were. I released the fork. It did not fall, but snapped back to the disc.
“This is magnetic, not magical,” I said. “Ore with this same property naturally occurs in some parts of Gensokyo’s mountain range, but it is very rare. It attracts iron, nickel and cobalt. Our utensils are made of steel, which is refined of iron.”
I separated the fork from the magnet disc again, setting the fork on the table. I looked over the orange-yellow surface of the disc, trying to read the red letters printed on it. The writing was blocky and uniform, too regular to have been rendered by hand. The characters were faded. Many were too distorted to read. The letters I could discern made no pattern I understood. It seemed a random alphanumeric mix.
“This magnetic piece metal is very well refined. It is not directly from an ore deposit.” I looked up at Meiling. “Where did you get this?”
“Um,” she said. “I found it.”
“Found it where?” I said.
“On the ground.”
Meiling snorted again. She held both arms out, pointing in opposite directions.
“Out there, stupid!” she said. “What other ground is there?”
My fingers gripped around the magnet disc, and I found myself tempted to throw it at her. I resisted the urge. Instead, I rejoined the disc and the fork, then stretched across the table and handed them to Flandre.
“Here you go, Little Mistress,” I said. “Happy birthday.”
Flandre took it from me, held it against her chest. “Thank you, Patchey!”
Meiling stared at Flandre for a moment, watching her pull the fork and disc apart, and giggle as they snapped back together. It dawned on her.
“Hey!” said Meiling. “Don’t thank her! It’s my gift.”
“Then why did you give it to Flandre?” I said.
“Because it’s her birthday,” said Meiling. She had both hands on the table, leaning towards me. Explaining an obvious fact to a lesser intellect.
“So it is her gift,” I said.
“Then why are you still standing?”
Meiling opened her mouth, but had no retort.
“I...,” she said. “I don’t know.”
Meiling was confused, looked as if mentally balancing a trigonometrical equation. She sunk back into her seat, hands folded in her lap.
I glanced around the table. “Idiocy checked for the moment, shall we move on?”
“Please,” said Remilia “Koakuma, it’s your turn.”
The youkai girl sitting beside me had been quiet for most of our meal and gift-giving. Now that the table’s attention turned to her, she slid back an inch in her seat.
“Um,” she said. “It’s not all that special.”
“We didn’t ask after your self-assessed quality of the gift,” said Remilia. “Only that you give it.”
“Yes, Mistress.” Koa took a deep breath. “Here goes.”
She stood, her chair scooting back. She was still, regarding Flandre across the table. I was surprised. I had not yet seen Koa show any degree of sternness, as she did now. If we were not at a dinner party, one might look upon her and see a woman facing danger with resolute courage.
“What?” said Flandre, in reaction to Koa staring at her. She ran a hand over her mouth. “Something on my face?”
Koa said nothing. She took another deep breath, let it out, and walked around the table to Flandre. She took the long way around, I noticed, to avoid passing by Meiling. Koa knelt down beside Flandre’s chair, looked up at her in the pose reminiscent of a young man proposing marriage to his loved one.
Flandre had turned sideways in her seat, to face Koa. “What’re you doing? You gonna give me something?”
“Not some thing,” said Koa. “That was my whole problem when I heard about this birthday. Your sister has been so generous, giving me a warm place to sleep and food to eat. And lady Patchouli gives me work to do and teaches me new things. But as great as that all is, I don’t have anything to give back. I can’t cook like Sakuya. I’m not strong like Meiling, and I can’t do magic like Remilia or Patchouli. So for your birthday, I want to give you the only thing I can.” She took Flandre’s hands in her own. “I’ll give you me.”
Each of us reacted differently upon hearing this. Flandre was bewildered. I put my hands on the table and stood, and I meant to have Koa clarify the meaning of her gift. Sakuya again put a hand over her mouth, mannerism becoming habitual for her. Remilia smiled, as if she understood. Meiling was bored, leaned back in her chair and picked something out of her ear.
“You’re giving me you?” said Flandre. “But I already have a Koa. It’s you.”
“Yes,” said Koa, “but what I mean is, I’ll give you me. If you need someone to talk to, or play with, or to help you figure out something, then I want you to come see me. I’ll be there for you. I’ll be what every girl needs. Your friend.”
Some moments require expletives stronger than what the current language provides. This was such a moment, when I fought every impulse to roll my eyes and look away in disgust. A baser, yet equally fitting, response would have been to vomit down the front of my dress. I was unaware that my assistant had a sentimental personality, hidden in my presence. Sentimental was perhaps too weak a word. Better was melodramatic, or even the slang sappy.
Flandre was less cynical. Her brow bunched up, and her lips quivered. Her eyes welled and fast tears ran down her cheeks. She slid off the chair and wrapped her slim arms around Koakuma in a hug. One of Flandre’s wings clipped the tabletop, but this went unnoticed.
“That’s an excellent gift, Koa,” said Remilia. “Best one of the evening.”
“It’s very sweet of you,” said Sakuya.
I said nothing, in respect to the old idiom of remaining silent in lieu of having anything positive to say. I only bowed to the table.
“Why don’t you two get married or something?” said Meiling. “Then Flandre will have someone else to thrash.”
We ignored her. Flandre and Koa held each other for a moment longer. Then Koa pulled back and dried Flandre’s tears.
“Friends?” Koa said.
Flandre nodded. “Friends!”
“No disrespect intended to this..,” my dinner threatened to jump up my throat, but I swallowed it down, “...emotional moment, but I request the opportunity to present Flandre the gift I have readied for her.”
“And about time,” said Remilia. “Koa, return to your seat. It’s Patchouli’s turn.”
Koakuma nodded. She stood and came back to my side, but not before lifting Flandre’s yellow bangs and pressing a light kiss to her forehead. My jaw clenched and my belly grew tight. I feared much time would pass before I could again enjoy the foods I had eaten tonight, much as a favorite dish looses its flavor when retched up due to gastrointestinal infection.
The table settled, Koa taking her seat beside me. I remained standing.
“A fine celebration this has been,” I said. “A meal surpassing all praise prepared by our esteemed head maid and her staff. Gifts to Flandre, gifts not only wondrous and useful, but also bearing strong personal form that represents the intentions, thoughts and feelings of the giver. I have no intention or hope that my gift, last of this fine series, will supersede or overshadow any given before it. But I do hope, at least, to meet precedent and give a gift that offers the best of myself.”
“I already know what you’re giving me, Patchey,” said Flandre. “It’s a book, isn’t it?”
I smiled. “What makes you think so?”
“’Cause that’s all you do, is books,” said Flandre. “You read books and talk about books and mess around with books in your library all day.”
“True,” I said. “Though a bibliophile I am, I, first, admit that books have no worth simply by the mere virtue of being books. It is their content that I desire, seek and consume. There lies the power to enlighten the mind and move the heart.”
“The book you’re gonna give me better be a Patchey dictionary,” said Flandre. “Then maybe I’ll understand you half the time.”
Remilia looked elsewhere, trying not to laugh. Sakuya looked down, hiding her smile by taking interest in straightening her apron.
“I have that very goal in mind, Little Mistress. My gift is designed that you may understand.” I held both hands up to the ceiling. I needed to time this exactly to gain the proper effect. I raised my voice nearly to a shout. “This is my gift! I, Patchouli Knowledge, offer you, Flandre Scarlet, that of which I hold most dear! The gift of mystery!”
The sparklamps around us all failed at once, pitching the dining room into utter darkness.
Forward to Part TwoReturn to Chapter Index