We walked a short way before I realized Yukari was still barefoot. She had left her shoes and gloves in the grass near the pool. It didn’t bother her. The lands beyond the waterfall gradually lost definition as we went further. Rivers tangled into what might have been a marshland or bog in the mortal world. But here, it was calming and lovely as the rest of Yuyuko’s realm. Little mounts of earth stood up from shallow puddles, tufts of soft and fragrant grass standing up like outrageous haircuts on bald heads. The ground sunk under our feet, and our footprints filled with water. My tracks were plain and indistinct from my smooth-soled gardening shoes. Yukari left marks as if her feet had been cast in plaster, round little dents for all five toes and deep depressions for the ball and heel of her foot.
We walked in silence for a time. Yukari led with her hand clasped on mine. She didn’t wander out into the swamp, which would have brought us into distant sight of the house. Instead we stayed near the Saigyou Ayakashi, walking wide around it to avoid climbing over the tallest roots. Out this far, stepping over the roots was no harder than my mistress’s patio. The roots were also wide and solid, like long islands. They were the only dependable thing on which one could stand in the wetlands.
“I don’t see the point of this,” I said. The socks inside my shoes were squishy and wet. “If you want to speak to me privately, there’s no way you can take me far enough. This is Yuyuko’s realm. She knows all that goes on here.”
Yukari took that as a cue that we had gone far enough. She let go of my hand and hopped barefoot up onto a root. I stepped up with her, to keep from sinking any further into the ground.
“Only if she chooses too,” said Yukari. “I’m hoping that Ran and Chen will hold her attention for now. If Yuyuko doesn’t know there’s anything worth paying attention to, it will go by unnoticed. ”
“Rather like your perspective of Gensokyo,” I said. I sat down on the root, my swords clattering on its bark. Modesty and decorum aside, I began unlacing my shoes. I took them off, then peeled off my socks wrung them out like rags. If Yukari didn’t care, then neither did I. Interpersonal etiquette took second priority to festering wet feet. On the trip back, I might follow her example and take the swamp barefoot.
Yukari was smiling at me, for no reason I could tell.
“Just so,” she said. “None better knows Yuyuko’s limitations than one who suffers the same. But I’m happier that way. I don’t want to know every little thing going on in either country. Too much worry. But that’s not why I brought you here.”
Yukari walked past me, heading up the long slope of root that led to the Saigyou Ayakashi’s base. She stopped after a few steps. Her back was turned to me. I laid my soaked shoes and socks out to dry, then stood and stepped up beside her. I was rarely barefoot outdoors, so the bark was rough on the tender soles of my feet. I ignored the discomfort. We looked upon the Ayakashi. It dominated the space above us, huge but empty.
“Why this, Youmu?” said Yukari. “Why is there a giant tree in Hakugyokuro?”
I thought it a silly question. “I don’t believe it matters. Why are there mountains surrounding Gensokyo? Why is there a lake at its heart? There’s no sense questioning what is, for it is.”
“That’s just like you,” said Yukari. “No sense questioning it, no. But trying to understand is not only sensible, but mandatory. I could explain the geological phenomena that caused Gensokyo’s mountains to stand, and the lake to flow as it does. But Hakugyokuro is a different matter. More spiritual and symbolic, especially concerning its mistress.”
“You’re saying the Ayakashi represents something?” I said.
“Of course it does. It’s foolish to think such a grand thing is arbitrary. The question is, what does the tree represent?” She took a deep breath, let it out. “Sadly, I know the answer to that question.”
“As do I,” I said. “It’s no secret. The Ayakashi’s immensity represents Yuyuko’s power.”
“You’re missing the point. Advanced minds easily fall into that trap. We fail to see the painting for the sake of examining each drop of paint. A younger and simpler mind, like my dear little Chen, will cut to the heart of the matter more quickly. Remember the comment she made about the Ayakashi?”
I did, because I remembered being offended by it.
“Why would anyone name a dumb old tree, she said.”
“That was it,” said Yukari. She craned her neck back, looking up at the highest branches above us. “Why does a tree symbolize Yuyuko’s power? Why not some more conventional representation of might? Imagine a mighty tower or a castle, like the stories of old feudal kings. Or a mountain, covered with the residences of the recently deceased, and Yuyuko’s own home on the highest peak. That would more closely tie Hakugyokuro to Gensokyo, making mountains prominent in the topography of both countries. Then again, why not a simple, immaterial beam of light, constantly shooting into the sky? That would certainly convey the strength of a great spiritual being.”
“That too seems obvious,” I said. “A tree is the symbol because it has personal importance to Yuyuko.”
Yukari smiled at me again. “You have it. What is that importance, then?”
I had no answer. I had never given it any thought. These matters were not my concern, in the daily chores of keeping a netherworld running. I was content to simply serve Yuyuko day after day. Nothing else seemed important.
“I don’t know,” I said. “And again, I think it’s irrelevant—”
“It’s not!” Yukari cut me off. Her tone was forceful, but not rude. She spoke like one desperate to teach a critical concept. “It’s the very reason Hakugyokuro is weakening, inching closer to becoming a land of the undead. When I said that I had known Yuyuko for a long time, I meant it. I’ve known her since before she was a ghostly child. I knew her premortem.”
My heart gave a little lurch in my chest. Yuyuko had died centuries ago. Perhaps those centuries had even stretched into millennia. Compared to that scale, I had served her during a small fraction of her rule. I have only ever known her as Lady Saigyouji, and I still struggle to picture her wearing a fleshy body like mine. Yet here, standing in front of me, was a youkai woman who could legitimately claim that same age. It was plausible Yukari had known Yuyuko before her death.
Sudden curiosity burned in me. I ached to know what my mistress had been like as a mortal girl. What would our relationship have been if I had known her before she died? Would we become friends?
“Did you?” I said. I wanted to ask many more questions than that, but I choked them back.
“I did indeed.” She nodded back in the direction of the house. “She was nothing like the pink-headed maniac over there. To see her then, you’d never think of her as queen of the netherworld. She had a hard enough time mastering herself, let alone anything else. She was a plain little slip of a girl. Not much to look upon, not strong or graceful. She would jump in terror if a mouse ever scurried across the kitchen floor. She was quiet and shy. She refused to speak anyone she didn’t know. Yet for all that, her heart was more beautiful than any human I’ve met before or since. She loved her family dearly, and she loved to read. She always seemed to have a book in hand.”
Yukari looked back up to the tree. “Storytelling was her solace from the anxieties of life. By the time she became a young woman, she was still painfully shy, but was brave enough to venture outside alone. On the outskirts of her hometown, there was a large cherry tree that stood alone in a field. When weather permitted, she would spend peaceful hours under that tree. Leaning back against its trunk while the wild grass swayed around her. Reading a good book, trying to memorize poems, and even singing them when she felt brave enough to hear her own voice.”
I listened, watching her face as she spoke. I knew every word she spoke was truth. Her eyes had the distant look of one remembering lifetime past.
“That is how I found her. I was wandering through my country, for Gensokyo’s beauty was still new and fresh to me then. I noticed the singing girl and hovered on a gap above her for a while, so that she would sing without noticing me. Her voice wasn’t pleasant. It grated on the ears, with no tone or practice with music. Yet something in her song entranced me.” Yukari closed her eyes, shook her head. “No. Something about her entranced me. I don’t know what. I can only say that a thing is most beautiful when unaware of itself. And so she was. I remember my first thought upon seeing her. What was this girl doing out alone, away from the protection of other humans? Didn’t she know wild youkai dwelt these fields? True, it was unlikely that any milling fairy would bother her, out in broad daylight. But I felt some concern for her. Those thoughts soon left me as I watched over her. I was....”
Her voice weakened into nothing. She sighed and looked down, her gaze tracing the Ayakashi’s trunk and the root down to our bare feet.
“I can’t explain,” she said. “Her song was over in a minute, and she sat in silence to read her book. I hovered for a while. Then I retreated into my gap and left her there. She never noticed me.”
“You didn’t introduce yourself?” I said.
“Not that time. Nor several times after. When the sun was shining, when it wasn’t too hot or cold, I’d check that cherry tree. I wanted to see her again. And I did, but that was all. I’d simply sit in midair above her while she sat and read. Sometimes she’d even fall asleep with me watching over her. I wanted to approach her. But despite being the mightiest living thing in Gensokyo, I couldn’t work up the nerve to say anything. I wasn’t a social creature. I had relations with few youkai and zero humans. I didn’t want to scare her off, but I didn’t want to appear needy or weak myself. I had no idea how to break the ice.”
Yukari smiled in nostalgia. “As usually happens, the situation ended with someone making a mistake. One long afternoon, she dozed off and left me to watch her sleep for hours. I was getting bored by then. Whether I was annoyed at her for not noticing me, or at myself for being too scared to be noticed, I’m not sure. I was ready to fold into my gap and leave her, maybe never to return. But before I left, I made a little noise of contempt.”
She hmphed, like a lady showing disdain for something.
“I made that sound,” she said. “I made it too loudly, or the girl was close to waking. She stirred and opened her eyes, and saw me above her. For a girl who would jump at a spider on the wall, you can imagine how she reacted to a greater youkai sitting on a rent of nothing in the air. She told me afterwards that she thought I was a nightmare. Some wicked goddess had come to torment her.”
“Torment?” I tilted my head at that. “For what?”
“Such was my thought,” said Yukari. “And I asked her just that. I soon learned that humans, especially young girls, feel guilty over the silliest things. Cowardice. Physical weakness. For not being better, as vague as that is. Once she had calmed down, we began talking. I asked her about herself. She gave me every detail I wanted, and quite a bit more besides. I soon realized was telling me things she had hitherto kept absolutely secret. I thought that strange at first. Why would she confide the dirty little details to me, and not her own parents? The answer came after I had known her for a while. She risked no judgment when speaking to me. I had lived much longer, and I knew the sickening things of life. Her sins and shames meant nothing to the evils I knew. But not only that. I also knew great and wonderful things. She eagerly listened to my tales, just as I heard hers.”
“You became friends?” I said. I didn’t know what answer I hoped for. Irrational jealousy fought admiration inside me.
“I suppose,” said Yukari. “Though I’ve never rightly understood the meaning of the word. I don’t make friends of humans, since they all die so quickly. And youkai are not friends, but lesser beings than I bend to my will.”
“That’s a harsh way to refer to your shikigami, and hers,” I said.
Yukari laughed softly. “It’s true, though. Ran puts up with me, maybe even loves me. But only because I’m stronger than her, and she loves strength above all else. Chen looks up to me like a grandmother, with affection and admiration, but not the devotion she feels for Ran. I’ve never had a friend, as you use the word. Yuyuko might be the only exception to that, but I hate using the term for us. To me, she is both less and more than a friend. Sometimes I feel as if she’s the other part of me. The part I wished I could have, but is kept from me.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said.
“Neither do I. When I knew her as a mortal being, something in her moved me. I think it was her courage. She was so brave. I was jealous of her.”
“That’s not how you described her. No brave girl would screech and jump on chairs at the sight of bugs and rodents.”
“Wouldn’t she? What if that same girl, after her initial shock, forced herself off the chair and went back to work? She could be mortally terrified of some harmless little fuzzball, but still cook dinner for her family. Isn’t that bravery? Isn’t courage nothing but the strength to face what frightens you?”
I said nothing.
“In a strange way, I envied her weakness. She was thin and frail, and would break down crying if you scolded her. But her weakness gave her the opportunity for strength. When she labored alongside heartier women, and dried her tears after each scolding, she was stronger than I could ever hope to be. I’m the most powerful living thing in Gensokyo, but what virtue is in that? How can I be brave when nothing poses a threat to me? How can I have strength of will when every plant, animal, youkai and human already bow to me?”
“You portray your life as a lonely one,” I said.
“I don’t ask for pity,” she said. “I deserve none. I’m only explaining why Yuyuko’s human self attracted me so. To put it simply, I liked her. We talked away hours under that cherry tree, away from her life at the village. Sometimes we would go for walks through the fields. I enjoyed imparting a feeling of freedom and safety to her, for she knew no beast or youkai could harm her in my presence. Even so, I felt indebted to her. I wanted to show my feelings in some substantial way. I offered her gifts. I found her good clothes, hair ribbons, jewelery, scarlet rouge and other silly things. I thought a human woman might appreciate all that. She graciously accepted whatever I gave her. But I soon realized she didn’t care anything for those gifts. What made her happiest was my own company. Having someone to talk to. Her family loved her, but even the closest families to tire of each other. But I never tired of her. Nor she of me.”
“So,” I said. “If you knew her before she died, you must have known her when she died.”
“I did. But I wasn’t there when it happened. At least not in the beginning. A few years after I met her, both her parents came down with some awful disease. I never found out why, but I guessed a fairy fell into a village well and contaminated their water supply. Several humans in that town died of magical maladies. Some people’s skin sloughed off their bones, and other’s internal organs went to mush. Still others had only runny noses, their mucus a harmless blue goo that stunk worse than rotten potatoes.”
I winced. “What of Yuyuko and her family?”
“Her parents’ symptoms were worst of all. Their bodies burned with fever so hot that it cooked their tissues. They both died in their sleep, and by morning their skin was charred as if they had been turned over a fire.”
Both my physical and ghostly halves put hands over our mouths. I didn’t want to picture what Yukari described, but I couldn’t help myself. My dinner threatened to come up. I closed my eyes I willed my stomach to settle.
“Was Yuyuko affected as well?”
She shook her head. “She didn’t drink of the spoiled well, if that’s what you’re asking. But she suffered no less than those who did. The loss of her family devastated her. There was no one to care for her, and she was anything but self-sufficient. I took her in and provided for her. I knew I couldn’t fill the void her parents left, but I hoped to show her she wasn’t unloved.”
Yukari looked away from the tree, turning her back on it. I turned too, so that I could see her face as she spoke.
“I don’t know how well I did. She overcame the worst of her grief, but she was never the same. She seemed...” Yukari paused, looking for the word. “...hollow is the best way to say it, I suppose. Too rarely did I see her smile. And every smile was forced, with no honest mirth behind it. Nothing gave her the same pleasure it once had. Reading a good book, conversations with me, or sitting under her favorite cherry tree on a sunny day. And do believe, she spent many hours under that tree.”
She looked over her shoulder, back at the Ayakashi. “A great many indeed. That’s where she died, you know. In her sorrow, she took little care of herself. She ate too little, and was never a big girl to begin with. She lost weight and fell sick often. But her failing body never stopped her from making daily trips to that stupid tree. That’s where I found her after she had stopped breathing. She died young, even by human standards. And I have every reason to think the tree was her last sight as a mortal.”
Yukari scowled at the Ayakashi, as if sizing up an enemy. We stood in silence for a moment. Yukari’s description of Yuyuko was totally alien to me. My mistress was a carefree and happy soul. She could find something to laugh at in the worst of tragedies. Granted, that personality had caused me some hardship, but I still wouldn’t have Yuyuko any different. And to think that she had been different, as Yukari described her, made no sense to my mind. I couldn’t bring myself to believe they were the same.
“And you say that’s the origin of the Saigyou Ayakashi?” I said.
Yukari nodded, looking forward again. “I mourned when Yuyuko’s mortal self passed away. I had been closer with her than any other being in all my long life. Imagine my joy when I learned that she had come to be ruler of Gensokyo’s netherworld. She retained no premortem memories, and seemed happier for it. She knew was human, and that she had died, and that her life had been hard. But she recalled no more, and didn’t care to. It was surprisingly fun to introduce myself to her for the first time again. We quickly became as close as we had in Gensokyo. All that, of course, came after my initial shock at first seeing this place. I was disgusted when I first came here, saw she had brought that blasted tree with her. I tried to dismiss it in the beginning. It was big and beautiful, I told myself. It blossomed fully, like a monument to life itself. But an age has passed, and what I had feared is now happening. The tree is withering. It’s an ugly sore on Hakugyokuro’s landscape. It shows the pain Yuyuko feels in her heart. Her sorrow that she can’t help the lost spirits any more than anyone could have helped her when she was lost herself. But she refuses to admit that pain, even now.”
“Can we help her?” I said. “I’m sure if we talk with Yuyuko-sama, we can make her come to terms with herself. Show her there are people who care for her, and that she needn’t rely on objects.” I stole my own glance back at the Ayakashi. “No matter how grand they may be.”
“Don’t you think I’ve already tried?” said Yukari. “I’ve had sixteen times your age to talk with her. I’ve reasoned, cajoled, coaxed, yelled, shouted, pleaded, screamed, cried, begged, and more emphatic forms of communication that the current language doesn’t have verbs for. Every time I get the same from her. She doesn’t know what I’m talking about. She would do better if it made me happy, but she has no idea what she’s supposed to do.” She sighed. “I had given up.”
“Do not give up!” I said, one of my teacher’s old maxims flying out of my mouth. Both my hands bunched into fists. “Giving up is worse than honestly failing! There has to be something you haven’t yet done.”
She smiled at me again. “You’re right. I said I had given up. But upon seeing you, I’m thinking better of it. It’s ironic. One young half-ghost might solve the problem I’ve beat my head against for centuries.”
“Again you call my race into the matter,” I said. “What does my being a half-ghost mean to you?”
“Everything,” she said. “Come with me.”
Yukari turned again, facing the Ayakashi. She began walking up the root, taking the gentle slope that eventually lead up to the tree’s base. I winced. I didn’t want to follow her barefoot. The bark cut into my tender feet badly enough just standing still. I glanced back at my socks and shoes, still drying on the root a few feet back, and rejected that idea. I could follow along side the root, walking on soft earth instead of hard tree. But the root rose as it went, and soon became taller than me. I would have to step up at some point, or be left behind.
I padded along.
“Please go slowly, Yukari-sama!” I called after her. “My feet are too accustomed to a gardener’s shoes.”
Forward to Part Five
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