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Life can grow.
This rule was taught to me in my early days, and I know it to be truth. As I’ve aged and worked, I’ve seen proof of it all around me. A small seed planted, given water and soil and sunlight, will grow into a beautiful cherry tree. A human child born, given time and commitment and love, will grow into an intelligent person. A group of people, given trust and understanding, will become a family.
Don’t mistake the word grow to mean only physical growth. The most important progressions happen on a purely spiritual level. A child learns to read, and discovers a love of books. A girl picks up an instrument, teaches herself to play, and realizes a passion for music. A man, driven to anger and pride when young, becomes sweet and kind in his elder years.
A student of swordsmanship somehow becomes a gardener.
I looked up from my work, wiping my brow. I realized the meaning of that gesture, looking at the light glaze of sweat on the back of my hand. I was the only being here that could sweat. A mortal dwelling in the immortal realm. Normally such things are impossible, but I’m the exception to the rule.
Or to be exact, I’m half of an exception.
I am Youmu Konpaku, retainer to the Saigyouji line that rules the netherworld gardens of Hakugyokuro. All those strange names are enough to intimidate people from learning more about us. That’s because I’m on the inside, explaining outwards. If we start from the outside and work in, it will make more sense.
Imagine a very large arboretum, planted full with all different breeds of the cherry tree prunus serrulata. Picture rows upon rows of the trees, separated into loose grids by cobblestone walkways. Now add some depth to the image, where some plots of land are higher than others. Some trees sit on hills, others in valleys. Stone staircases run up and down, crossing over themselves in tangles that defy the eye. Shallow streamlets run through the gardens, coming from and going to nowhere in particular. The water is crystalline blue, a sharp and lovely contrast to the pink and red from the cherry trees. Where the walking paths meet the streams, small wooden bridges let the walkway go uninterrupted. All in all, the place looks like someone’s dream of paradise.
Hakugyokuro is the resting place for the worldly country Gensokyo. The humans who die there come here for a time. They don’t stay here forever, and what happens to them after is a mystery. Perhaps their spirits are reincarnated into a new generation, in Gensokyo or elsewhere. Maybe they move on to a grander afterlife, where some God presides over eternal heavens. It doesn’t matter to me. My business is Hakugyokuro, and serving its master.
I enjoy the company of the ghosts, as long as they’re here. You wouldn’t guess it, but the recently deceased are a delightful group of people. Some are killed from a sudden accident, others from long and painful illness. But none carry the shock or bitterness of death when coming to Hakugyokuro. This place won’t admit a spirit that keeps physical worries after leaving its body. Not that we don’t want them, but they don’t want us. They fear entering this place will mean their destruction, like a shadow ceasing to exist when exposed to sunlight. That very fear, that inability to let go of the self, is what keeps a soul from moving on.
I mourn for those trapped by their own fearful hearts, but I’m happy to meet those who come here. They talk with me, tell me of their lives and deaths. They ask about me, how I like my job in the netherworld. I don’t have much to say on the topic, and they respect my privacy. Rarely do the ghosts annoy me. Most of them are too nice.
There are rare cases, though. Like today. One particularly persistent ghost wouldn’t leave me alone. I was busy sweeping the last of the fallen cherry petals from the walkways. Autumn was over. Winter had begun. I wanted to finish my work and go indoors, enjoy a hot cup of tea while reading a good book.
But this bothersome ghost enjoyed making my job difficult. I finished scooting a huge pile of cherry petals to the side of the path. The ghost sat on a tree branch above me, looking down at my work.
“What a fine job, Youmu!” she said. “That’s the best pile of petals you’ve swept together. Ever!”
“No different from the thousands of others,” I said. I knelt down beside the mound of petals, ready to scoop it into a big bag.
“Oh no, Youmu. Don’t you know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? And I behold this to be both beautiful and functional. Like a haystack that a child jumps into from the barn loft.”
I looked up. “Like a what?”
She jumped from the branch, landed in my hard work. Cherry petals exploded in all directions. I got a face full of them. The ghost rolled around in them, like a kitten scratching its back on the ground. Her hair was about the same color as the petals, but her clothes weren’t. She wore a light blue kimono, and a matching nightcap with a ghostly-shaped swirl on front.
I stood, my hands bunched into fists. My jaw clenched. Petals falling from my face. My first instinct was to bare my swords, use them to eliminate whoever dare interrupt my duties. But I couldn’t draw weapons against this ghost, no matter if she ruined my work.
Sadly, this ghost was the reason I was working.
“Yuyuko-sama!” I yelled at her.
The ghost sat up, having scattered most of the cherry petals. She put a fist to the side of her head. She had that look on her face, Uh oh, I’m getting scolded now. Childish and helpless. Being covered in cherry petals made it ridiculous.
“I spent half an hour sweeping that up!” I said. “How could you—”
“I’m so sorry, Youmu!” She hopped to her feet and clamped me into a crushing hug. She had her arms around my head, squeezing me into her chest.
I moaned, tried to push her away. But she held me tighter. She was stronger than me, which is ironic given she had no muscles to flex or bones to hold them up. When in the ethereal world, ghosts can choose which physical laws to obey. This one was obeying the law of Squish Youmu’s head until brains come out her ears.
“I feel bad for ruining your hard work,” she said, laying on a few more pounds per square inch. “I need your help so badly. I had to get your attention somehow.”
“You haff it,” I said, muffled into her kimono. “Now pleaf remoof your breafs from my fafe.”
She pulled her ample bosom out of my eyes, giving me room to breathe. But she didn’t let me go. Hands on my shoulders, she leaned down to put her face on level with mine. Her eyes were pink, but a darker shade than her hair. The same contrast as cherry tree in full blossom. Despite her unusual colors, she was not youkai.
“We’re both girls here,” she said. “No need to be shy, right?”
“Suffocation is a more immediate concern than modesty,” I said. “For what did you need my help?”
“Oh yes.” Yuyuko stood up straight, keeping one hand on my shoulder. “We have guests coming soon, Youmu. Important, powerful guests. Guest that will demand proper reception and hospitality. We must guide them in, show them the grounds. Sit down for tea and discuss trivial things. Serve them a grand dinner to show our esteem.” She put her free hand over her eyes, ashamed. “But I’m at a loss! I don’t know what to feed them.”
“All of our guests have outgrown their eating habit,” I said.
“Oh no.” Yuyuko looked down at me. “These guests aren’t ghosts. They’re not even human. But they’re alive, and they’ll have appetites.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. Yuyuko only knew one and a half premortem beings. I was the half. The other was a youkai woman whose company I didn’t enjoy.
“Your… friend?” I said.
“Yes.” Yuyuko smiled. She let go of my shoulder, looked off into the trees. “It’s been a while since she’s visited us, hasn’t it? She has a shikigami now, you know. Not only that, but her shikigami has one too! Can you imagine? A servant’s servant, and a master’s master. Isn’t that silly?”
“Less so than some things,” I said.
“Even so.” Yuyuko turned back to me. “This meeting has a lot of significance. It’s the reunion of old friends, and the celebration of new ones. And a planning session for the future! Such an important gathering requires a meal of equal importance.”
“Planning the future?” I said. “What are—OUCH!”
Yuyuko grabbed me, but not my physical self. She put a hand in the air, about a foot above and to the right of my head. There she made a fist, took hold of an invisible thing that gave like soft flesh. She had my ghost in her grip.
“No time for chat, Youmu!” She headed down the cobblestone path, dragging me by the spirit. “A grand meal is needed at the house, along with the pint-sized gardener who’s going to cook it.”
I followed, like a child pulled along by the ear.
Confusion arises when discussing the netherworld, because of the contextual meaning of some terms. The word human is a good example. It means different things in different conversations. Let me clarify.
A human is a being composed of both an ethereal spirit and physical flesh. The body is originally made from its mother, and kept alive by the consumption of food. The spirit occupies this body from conception to death, and then leaves the body behind. This definition of human is opposed to youkai, beings born from accumulations of magical energy. Whether youkai have definable spirits is unknown, but no fairy soul has ever passed through Hakugyokuro.
From this point of view, Yuyuko and I are both human. We are not youkai, as our physical forms didn’t come from magic. Yuyuko has long since left behind her physical half. She has ruled over Hakugyokuro for centuries, but in spirit only. I suppose her body has decomposed in the soil beneath Gensokyo. Yuyuko is still very alive, not to mention careless and simple, but only in the immortal sense.
As for me, I’m both alive and mortal, but not as an ordinary human would know it. The Konpaku bloodline is a race of half-ghosts, beings whose physical and ethereal selves occupy separate space.
If you were to look at me in daylight, you would see a human girl. I have physical characteristics. I’m short. My hair is so blonde that it’s nearly colorless, as my father’s was. I offset my hair with a black bow. I wear a dress and vest emblazoned with the ghost crest of my heritage. Strapped to my lower back are two sheathed swords, one short and one long. Hakurouken and Roukanken, the blades are named. I look more like a female samurai than the barefooted farm girls you find inhabiting Gensokyo, but there’s nothing supernatural to see about me.
Until night falls. Starlight and moonlight are somehow different than the daytime sun. When you see me in the dark, you might mistake me for two people. Two girls who look very alike. Twins perhaps. But then you’d notice one girl’s feet didn’t touch the ground as she walked. You’d notice one girl had pale skin, and the other’s was beyond pale. Not all there. Ghostly, in fact.
Many have asked me what it’s like being a half-ghost. The people I talk to have been physical and ethereal, but not both at the same time. They want to know what it feels like.
The truth is, I don’t know how it feels. I’ve never been anything other than a half-ghost, so I can’t compare it to anything. Most humans have spirits either within living a living body, or without a dead one. I simply have both circumstances, a spirit outside live flesh. The two are connected, but not in direct contact. I have both physical and spiritual senses. I can see, touch, taste, smell and hear. I can walk into a couple’s bedroom and know whether they spent the night before fighting or making love, by the spiritual energies that permeate the space and surfaces of the room.
People tell me they can’t imagine living as a half-ghost. I tell them I can’t imagine living as anything else. I am Konpaku.
Yuyuko and I walked past uncounted cherry trees, all bare of their blossoms now that winter had begun. Hakugyokuro experiences seasons as the mortal world does. We go through cycles of winter and summer, spring and fall. Night and day. Rain and shine. Our environmental changes are only less harsh than the neighboring worldly territory, Gensokyo. Summer is a season of rejuvenating warmth, rather than oppressive heat. Winter is a time of cozy cuddling under blankets, rather than shivering fear of hypothermia. Spring and fall are pleasant transitions between the two.
As we headed back to the house, the air around us was cool and clean. There was no sun, but the light in the sky was deepening and reddening. The netherworld was letting us know that the day’s work was done. It was time to go indoors, eat a delicious meal and spend time with loved ones. And after that, time to lie down and rest, content with the day’s happenings, happily looking forward to tomorrow.
It’s paradise. I love living here.
We mounted a hill, looking over the center of Hakugyokuro below us. Our house was down there, but it was hardly noticeable beside the biggest cherry tree in the gardens.
“Isn’t she lovely?” said Yuyuko. Her feet were six inches above the ground as she floated down the hillside. “You think she’ll bloom next spring?”
I followed her, but said nothing. The tree up ahead was larger than anything else bearing the name tree. It’s trunk was larger in diameter than a feudal lord’s mansion. A massive network of roots spread out from its base, webbing out in all directions across Hakugyokuro’s landscape. The roots bulged up near the trunk before gradually disappearing into the ground, making mounds a grown man couldn’t easily climb over. Its huge system of branches fanned out against the pastel sky, bare like the rest of the gardens. But not because of the season. This tree never bloomed. In my heart of hearts, I was grateful. Cleaning up after it would mean days of sweeping, bagging, and hauling fallen cherry petals.
Of course, I wouldn’t tell Yuyuko my feelings on that matter.
“Youmu?” she looked back at me. Waiting for an answer.
“I don’t know, Yuyuko-sama,” I said.
Her shoulders drooped, her face sad. She turned and hovered down the path, bobbing up and down as she went. I stayed close behind. I wished I could give her the answer she wanted, but I wouldn’t lie to my mistress.
We made it down the hill, headed towards the house. It’s an eastern-style home, complete with Oriental architecture and design. Low ceilings. Sliding screen doors. Mat flooring. We have a kotatsu, a table atop of a small burner and covered with a heavy blanket. There’s even a garden out back, where I grow beans and vegetables.
As we approached the house, I walked ahead of Yuyuko. I hopped up onto the wooden deck and slid the screen door aside, holding it open for her. She went inside, floating past me.
“Do you know when the guests will arrive?” I said.
She didn’t need to answer. I saw a flash of light in the corner of my eye. I turned, reaching back for one of my swords. Not that there was a threat, but my weapons are habit when something surprises me.
The light came from the peak of the hill that Yuyuko and I had just descended. There was a break in the air there, a dark fissure opening in the shape of an evil grin. A gap.
“That must be her now,” said Yuyuko. “Go greet them, would you?”
The screen door slid shut.
I rushed from the house and back up the hill, keeping a hold on both my swords as I ran. I reached the hilltop sweating and panting, but in time to receive the visitors.
The dark gap hung seven feet off the ground, tied on either end with a non-material ribbon. I looked up at it, but not into it. I knew it was a means of transportation to those who used it, but I never wanted to travel in such a fashion. I didn’t care to know what darkness existed behind my reality.
Three lighted silhouettes appeared against the darkness inside the gap. The figures were small at first, but grew rapidly as if approaching from distance at great speed. They took on humanoid shape and size, and were suddenly out of the gap. It closed behind them, and they were here. Their feet were on the same ground as mine.
Three people stood before me, side by side. On the right stood a tall and powerful woman, and only in some ways did she seem human. Her face was pretty, but lined and careworn, like a mother aged early from worry. She wore heavy robes embroidered on front with characters of the old language. Her clothes didn’t hide the thick bands and slabs of muscle that stood off her body. She wore an odd two-pointed nightcap, no doubt covering animal ears atop her head. Even more, the fluffy plumage of many red-orange tails stuck out the back of her dress. A fox youkai. She carried a heavy bag in one hand, filled with what I couldn’t tell.
On the left stood the shortest of the three, a gawky young girl barely taller than me. She looked like a cross between a schoolchild and a feral cat. She wore a simple dress and vest. A green artist’s beret sat on her head, between up-pointing feline ears. Upon seeing me, the cat girl grinned. Her mouth was full of sharp teeth.
Standing between these two was a woman of ordinary height. She had no bestial features, but was more than human. Her hair was long and golden, cascading down her back in loose ringlets. Her eyes were deep lavender. She was clothed like an aristocrat’s wife, wearing an expensive dress and carrying a frilly parasol.
I didn’t know the two animals, but I knew their mistress far too well. Here was the most powerful youkai in existence. I bowed to her deeply.
“Mistress of the Boundary, Yakumo Yukari-sama,” I said. “It is both honor and delight to have you visit. I beg your forgiveness, but I know not your companions.”
The grand youkai woman laughed, holding a gloved hand over her mouth. Her voice was full and rich.
“Still with the archaic introductions,” she said. “Get with the times, Youmu. No one calls their masters sama anymore. And besides, you think I can’t see through such a thinly veiled attempt to learn the identity of intruders?”
I stood up straight, but said nothing. I looked her in the eye. I wouldn’t have dared had we been in the mortal world, but I needn’t fear her here. This was Yuyuko’s realm.
Yukari laughed again. “And you don’t even deny it! You haven’t changed at all, Youmu.” She gestured to her left. “This is my shikigami, Ran.” To her right. “And this is her shikigami, Chen. Both of you, this is Youmu Konpaku. Yuyuko’s servant. Say hello.”
The fox woman, Ran, nodded to me, keeping one arm folded into her robe. She grumbled, “Hello.”
The cat girl, Chen, stepped up to me. She looked me up and down, then clapped a hand on my head. My black ribbon crushed under her palm. Her claws dug into my hair. My instinct was to flip out a blade and remove her arm from the elbow down, but I stayed still.
“You’re short!” she said, grinning and clenching the crown of my head.
“So I am,” I said. “But my swords are very long.”
The smile fell from her face. I had confused her. She wasn’t much smarter than her feline likeness, I could already tell.
An angry growl came from the fox woman, like an animal warning another to stay away from its prey. I took one second to realize she wasn’t growling at me.
“Chen,” said Ran. “Unhand her.”
The cat made a hmphing sound, as if I was no longer good enough for her. She let go of me, went back to Yukari’s side.
I bowed again, pretending none of that had happened.
“Yukari, Ran and Chen of House Yakumo. I welcome you to Hakugyokuro. Yuyuko-sama is awaiting your arrival. Please come with me.”
I turned and headed down the hill. Yukari followed me, tapping the tip of her parasol to the ground like a walking cane. Ran took Chen by the hand and brought up the rear.
Yukari looked up to the immense bare cherry tree that defined Hakugyokuro’s skyline. It was easy to tell her thoughts by the look on her face. Awe and disappointment. Just like Yuyuko.
“The Saigyou Ayakashi seems bigger every time I see it,” said Yukari. “Has it bloomed yet, Youmu?”
“No,” I said, not looking at her.
“Amazing.” Yukari glanced back at her two shikigami. “Take a good look. You’ll never see its like in Gensokyo. No tree this large could exist in the mortal world. It’s still alive, perhaps even growing. But it never blossoms.”
“I don’t like this place,” said Ran. “Natural laws are not obeyed.”
“Who would name a dumb old tree?” said Chen.
“Don’t be rude, you two.” said Yukari. “That tree is very important to our host. It’s a symbol of her power and status as the ruler of the netherworld.”
“Similar to your Boundary?” said Ran.
“Yes,” said Yukari. “Very similar indeed.”
I led the Yakumos down to the house. Yukari could call me archaic, but it wouldn’t keep my mistress from a proper greeting. When we reached the lot before the house, under the great tree’s shadow, I turned and faced the guests.
“If you would please wait here,” I said. “I will announce your arrival to Yuyuko-sama.”
Yukari smiled, no doubt finding me utterly amusing.
“As you wish,” she said.
I nodded, and would have turned back to the house. I wasn’t fast enough. Before I could move, the screen door slammed open. Out rushed a blur of blue kimono and pink hair. Yuyuko didn’t notice me standing there, and her knees clipped my shoulders, knocking me face down to the ground. Tackling me didn’t slow her at all, and she rammed into Yukari with a full-forced hug.
“Yuka-reeeee!” Yuyuko squealed. “It’s so good to see you!”
Yukari had better balance than I. She only returned Yuyuko’s hug, patting her on the back.
“You too, my little ghostly child,” she said. They held each other like friends long parted. I didn’t see much of this, instead reconciling my sudden intimate acquaintance with the ground before Yuyuko’s front porch.
By the time I had enough of my wits to realize what happened, I saw a pair of leathern shoes peaking out from under a long robe. I looked up, saw Ran standing over me. She still held the sack in one hand, and Chen’s hand in the other. The cat girl folded in her lips, trying not to laugh at me.
“Are you all right?” said Ran.
“Yes,” I said, hoping not to swallow any dirt. I spat once, as gracefully as one can spit. I pushed my self up slowly, making sure none of my parts were broken. I brushed the dirt off my dress. “Such is standard procedure here, I’m afraid to say.”
“I see,” said Ran, completely serious. “It’s good to know I’m not the only one treated so by her mistress.”
I looked up at her, wondering what she meant. I had a hard time imagining anyone who could knock down such a muscle-laden beast as Ran. But if one stronger person existed, it would be Yukari.
“Youmu!” called Yuyuko from the house’s front door. She and Yukari had gone behind me while I recovered. “Dinner’s waiting! For you to cook it!”
Forward to Part TwoReturn to Chapter Index