“Okay, Youmu. We’re here.”
My eyes were clamped shut. I clung to Yukari’s dress, waiting for this mad climb up the Ayakashi to be over. I worked for each breath. The air pressure dropped, and it popped my ears.
“You can let go of me now, Youmu.”
Wind swept my hair in every direction, and I feared my bow would come undone and flutter away to some unknown corner of Hakugyokuro. And I knew my dress had ridden up, showing my undergarments to whoever cared to see. Yukari’s suggestion of my being married was now beyond ridiculous. No man would take a wife who had flashed the whole netherworld. I would give Yukari a very stern admonishment when she finally let me down.
“Let’s bring you back to the land of the wakeful.”
I felt the oddest sensation, and I realized my principle weakness while draped over Yukari’s shoulder. My rear end, covered only with modest bloomers, was in easy reach of Yukari’s free hand.
My head jumped up. My eyes snapped open.
“Ouch!” I slapped a hand back at her, wriggled to get free of her hold. She let me roll off her shoulder. I tumbled to the ground, which was still the Ayakashi’s bark. Thankfully, I landed on my hands and knees, and not on my swords. I crawled away from Yukari. Once my back was against the tree’s trunk, I glared at her. I clenched my teeth. Tears stood out in my eyes.
“You pinched me!” I yelled at her. “I feel violated!”
Yukari brushed her hands against each other, as if finishing off a good day’s work.
“But it sure brought you out of your coma, didn’t it?” she said. “Never mind that. I brought you up here to show you something.”
“Up here?” I said. I looked side to side, and realized I couldn’t see earth in any direction. Only the Ayakashi’s root below us. I leaned towards the root’s edge and looked down. My stomach clenched. My knuckles went white in my grip on the bark.
The ground was much farther below us than I expected. We were on a branch, not a root. A wide bough at least two hundred feet up in the air. A deadly drop below us, I saw a wide geometric shape spread out on the ground. Lady Yuyuko’s house, though I didn’t recognize it at first. I had never seen it from above.
“Sweet mercy.” I backed away from the edge. I retreated to the nook where the branch elbowed with the tree trunk. I bunched up and held myself tight.
“Don’t look down,” said Yukari. “Look over here.”
She pointed to a crooked branch, sprouting up off the bough on which we stood. I didn’t see what she wanted me to see. There was nothing but bare wood, just like the rest of the tree.
“What are you pointing at?” I said, though my voice came out louder than I meant. It sounded like an accusation.
“It must be too dark for your eyes, even this close.” She held out a hand to me. “Come here.”
“I’m not moving!” I said. “The wind could blow me off if I stand up.”
“Do you think it matters? Even if you fell, I’d catch you long before you hit the ground.”
I shook my head. “No!”
She sighed. “You have to move eventually, Youmu. Do you want to stay up here forever?”
She had a point. Still, my muscles were locked in place. I no had desire to stand, but I needed to.
“Do you promise,” I said, “to see me down safely?”
“Of course I do. I could hardly look Yuyuko in the face if I got her servant killed.”
“Very well,” I said. I forced my arms and legs to bend, pushing me to my feet. “I am a swordsman of Konpaku. I do not fear, least of all death.”
Those words were merely to coax myself along. I didn’t care to appear brave before Yukari. As if I even could have, at this point.
“Then stand up and get yourself over here, you silly ghost woman,” she said.
I stepped forward and grabbed Yukari’s hand in both my own. I felt better to hold something, even as the wind pushed against me, threatened to send me tumbling off the branch.
“Now look,” said Yukari, pointing to the bare branch again. “See this?”
Closer now, even in the near dark of this night, I saw what she had brought me up here for. I blinked, to ensure my eyes weren’t fooled. My breath caught.
Hanging off tip of the crooked branch was a small stem, ending in a cherry blossom. The little pink flower bobbed up and down in the wind.
“This can’t be,” I said. I took one hand from Yukari, cupped it around the blossom. It tapped against my palm as the wind moved it. It was real. A part of of the Saigyou Ayakashi had bloomed. A tiny part.
“Even better than I hoped,” said Yukari. “The magic power manifest itself immediately. I expected it to take some time to show.”
“But it’s nearly winter!” I said. “No tree should be blossoming now.”
“This blossom has nothing to do with seasons,” she said. “This is your doing.”
“Hardly.” I stood up straight, letting the flower flop in the wind. I still held onto Yukari’s hand. “The magic is all yours, Yukari-sama. I merely lay there and suffered while it happened.”
“It gets better the more you do it. It won’t be so bad the next time.”
I looked at her, and remembered how angry I was for being molested. I squeezed her hand as tightly as I could, but she seemed not to notice.
“Next time?” I said. “Is this what you wanted from me? Use me as a pump to get your power into Hakugyokuro?”
“With good reason, you’ll remember. But no. I don’t want you just to sit and change magic from mortal to immortal. I also need you to collect it and bring it here.”
“Why must I? Why can’t you go and gather it yourself?”
“Because I need to work on making this all possible. When you start gathering Gensokyo’s energy, it’ll be easy at first. But the more you bring here, the harder it’ll be to find. Unless I focus the energy together, you won’t get enough of it to make a difference. I’ll be at my home in the mountains, keeping Gensokyo cohesive so that you can harvest it.”
“I could never hope to complete this,” I said, looking down at the blossom again. “If that much was only enough to make one little flower, it would take years to bring enough power to change the Ayakashi.”
“Magic doesn’t quite work that way,” said Yukari. “It’s more multiplicative than additive. As you bring Gensokyo’s magic here, not only will the Ayakashi bloom more, but the rate at which it blooms will increase. It’s going to be a lot of work, but worthwhile. And besides, I have a few tools that will make the work easier.”
Yukari had a hand in her dress pocket. From it, she pulled out President Strangebird, which had now gone back to its inanimate self. Its wings and legs were folded up. It was once again only a wooden carving.
“This is one of those tools.” She put the carving in my hand, closed my fingers around it. “Remember the pass phrase to activate it, the one I used down below. It automatically deactivates once drained of energy. But if you wish to disable it before then, speak its other pass phrase.”
“One one, two two, one nine six three.”
I put the President in my pocket. “A random sequence of numbers?”
“Not random,” said Yukari. “Those numbers signify the end of a presidency. Also, you’ll have a hard time gathering any magic if you can’t get around, so I’ll enchant one of your swords with limited gap power. That way, you’ll be able to go anywhere within Gensokyo.”
“Gap?” I said. “The way you travel?”
She nodded. “The same.”
I swallowed. “I don’t think that’s necessary.”
“It is. Unless you want to huff all across Gensokyo on foot. Then it really will take years to make a difference. We’ll also need some way to get you in and out of Hakugyokuro. That’s a lot harder than cutting gaps within the same dimension, so I’ll have to set up a dedicated portal somewhere. But we can work out the details later. I’ve kept you up here long enough. Shall we go down?”
“Yes,” I said. “So long as the trip down is easier than the trip up.”
“Oh, much easier. Or I should say, simpler.”
“What do you mea—”
And that was all I could say before she once more threw me over her shoulder. I tried to get a good grip on her, make myself steady for the decent, but I had no time.
Yukari turned and jumped off the branch.
There is no experience like falling from a great height. You feel as though all your internal organs are trailing up a dozen yards behind you. The wind tears at your face, peeling your eyes open and pulling your lips back from your teeth. Your own voice is lost in the noise, even as you scream your throat raw. The ground races up faster than anything should be able to move.
This was going to kill me. I would soon join my father on the far side of the Sanzu River. I wished I had gotten the chance to say goodbye to Yuyuko.
Two seconds before we hit, our fall slowed. Yukari held her hand down, fingers spread wide, as if she were warding the ground away. My relative weight increased, pressing Yukari’s shoulder harder into my gut. Our velocity lessened until we had come to a near stop, and we were inches above the ground. Yukari stepped down onto it, her feet sinking into the wet earth.
“That was fun!” she said.
I tumbled off Yukari’s shoulder. I hit the ground on my shoulder and hip, but I hardly felt it. I trembled all over, gasping for breath. The swampy ground dipped under me, and water soaked into my clothes. That minor shock of cold was the straw that broke my back. I got my hands and knees under myself, and I threw up on the dirt. My dinner came out in a rush, cutting off my air for a few seconds.
“Ew!” Yukari stepped back from me, so that I didn’t vomit on her feet. “I’m sorry, Youmu. I didn’t know you had a problem with heights.”
“That’s quite—” I coughed, and I spat bile. “—quite all right. Ran’s meat wasn’t agreeing with me anywa—”
My stomach roiled. I retched again, throwing up the last of my stomach’s contents.
When it was over, crawled away from the mess I had just made, and collapsed onto my back. My swords jutted into my lower back, forcing my pelvis to arch up, but I hardly cared. I lay there for a while, catching my breath. Feeling my gums swell from the stomach acid I had spat up. The earth sank under me. A Youmu-shaped puddle of cold water formed where I lay. I wanted nothing better than to rest here, but I couldn’t stay. I would eventually drown.
“Yukari?” I said.
“Yes?” She stood by, waiting for me.
“Where did we land? How far is it back to Yuyuko-sama’s house?”
“Not far, as the President flies,” she said. “But it’ll be a trip on foot. We have to walk all around the Ayakashi’s roots.”
“No challenge for you,” I said. “ You can simply jump over them.”
“I won’t. Seeing how that affected you, I wouldn’t do it again. Rest for a bit, if you need, and I’ll carry you home.”
I raised a hand, pointed at her. “You are not carrying me anywhere!”
“Would you rather walk?”
I dropped my hand, and it splashed on the dirt.
“You make a persuasive argument.”
“Don’t worry your puked-out little head, Youmu. I’ll take slow steps, and we can go by the boring scenic route. No jumping, falling, or other superhuman feats of athleticism. I’ll even carry you piggyback style.”
“I’ll get dirt on your dress,” I said.
“I don’t care.” She stepped over to me, began the slow process of prying me up off the ground. “There are much worse ways to be filthy than dirty clothes.”
I had my arms around her neck, and relaxed my head against her back. My legs were wrapped around her waist. She had both her hands under my thighs, holding me up. My swords hung off my back and clacked together as we walked. The dark and swampy landscape scrolled by us. She would first carry me to the root where I had dropped my shoes and socks, and then take me back to Yuyuko’s house. I bounced behind her, in time with her steps.
“Youmu,” she said. “I have a question.”
I didn’t want to talk. Didn’t want to put the effort into speaking. I wanted to close my eyes and sleep.
“Ask,” I said.
“Will you do it?”
“The favor I asked of you.”
Should I have paused and considered? Should I have given her some noncommittal answer? Told her I would think on it and give a response later?
No. My mind was made up. As little as I liked Yukari, I had to admit one fact. I loved seeing even one blossom upon the Saigyou Ayakashi. I knew my mistress would love it even more. And if it were for her own good, breaking her of obsession of an object, then so much the better.
“Yes,” I said. “But not tonight.”
“Not tonight,” said Yukari. “We can start sometime late tomorrow, or early the day after. I’ll come find you when things are ready. Hopefully I can take you without Yuyuko’s notice.”
“She will notice,” I said. “But I can disguise my errand. She sends me to Gensokyo on occasion, for supplies.”
“Good. So you’re not totally unfamiliar with the mortal realm.”
“No. I know the place.”
She walked on in silence. The talking was over, and I was ready to rest my head against Yukari’s back. But something caught my eye. As we went, gentle waves went through Yukari’s hair. The wind occasionally picked it up, tossing it into my face. But this worried me less than what I saw under her hair.
On the back of Yukari’s neck, a small red spot stood up from her skin. The kind you would see on a greasy-faced human teenager, but never on a youkai queen. Youkai, by their bizarre nature, are often fantastically beautiful. Their faces are lovely. Their bodies are alluring. Their skin is perfectly clear. None more so than she who now carried me.
“Yukari-sama,” I said. “There’s something on your neck.”
“What’s that?” she said. “A bug?”
Submitting to a foolish impulse, I reached up and put a finger to the red spot. It felt hot and fatty, as if it would easily burst under pressure. I hurt Yukari doing this. She hissed, inhaling through clenched teeth.
“That stings!” she said, putting a hand to the back of her neck.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I put my hand back where it belonged, keeping myself from falling off her.
“No. I’ve hurt you far worse this evening.” She got her hand back under my leg.
“But where did that come from?” I said. “I’ve never seen you with blemishes. You’re Yukari Yakumo.”
“Believe it or not, Youmu, I’m not perfect.”
“You’ve had blemishes before?”
“It’s possible for me to get the odd zit now and again,” she said. “Especially after exhausting days like today.”
That sentence confused me. For one, this was the first time I heard the word zit, though I could guess what it meant. For two, Yukari seemed to misunderstand what caused a zit. Humans didn’t get acne from weariness, but from unwashed faces. For three, she hadn’t answered my question.
“I see,” was all I said. But Yukari’s body being less than perfect nagged at my mind for a long while.
Yukari brought me back to the house. She set me down outside and allowed me to go indoors on my own feet. I was grateful. I already have enough to explain, if anyone saw me. Wet and shivering cold. Mud all up the backside of me, on my legs and dress and in my hair. I was sure I still smelled of vomit. And beyond all that, why had Yukari and I been out so late?
The Yakumos stayed with us overnight. Yukari, Ran and Chen all retreated to the guest bedroom to prepare for sleep. For myself, the first order of business was to get a long drink of water. With my stomach emptied, I couldn’t even think of food. But I was parched.
I rinsed the dirt out of my hair, and used a washcloth to scrub off my limbs. Once clean, I left the kitchen and made for my bedroom. I stripped from my soaked dress, throwing those garments in the corner for later laundry. I opened my closet, looking for dry bedclothes, but found something entirely different. A pink-haired ghost had been curled up among my wardrobe, and she poked her head out at me.
“Boo!” she said.
I fell back in shock. My bare buttocks hit the floor, and I realized my mistake. In my eagerness to get out of wet clothes, I had peeled down to the skin before finding anything new to wear. I was naked, all but for the black bow in my hair. I placed my hands in strategic areas to cover myself.
“Yuyuko-sama!” I said. “You startled me!”
She stood and floated out of the closet. She was in her evening kimono, the robe she wore to bed. I had often complained at her choice of night wear. The only difference from her daytime clothes was that this robe more easily showed her bosom and legs. I didn’t care to see those details of my mistress.
Then again, at the moment, I had little basis to accuse anyone of dressing lewdly.
“What do you expect of me?” she said. “I’m a ghost. But I’m not the one facing inquisition here. You need to explain your behavior, little miss.”
“Could inquisition be postponed until I’m clothed with something more than my hands?”
“Absolutely not!” Yuyuko knelt down beside me. The neck of her robe revealed much more than I wished to see. “If I give you any prior warning, then the outcome of the questioning is tainted. I need to surprise you to get the truth out of you.”
“Please consider me perpetually surprised.”
“Good! Then answer this. I only told you to go check on Yukari. Why did that take so long? Why didn’t you two come back until after dark?”
“I’m sorry for the delay,” I said. “The truth is, she wished to speak to me.”
I didn’t answer immediately, and I knew how suspicious that seemed. I realized a flaw in Yukari’s plan. I couldn’t lie to Yuyuko. When away from my mistress, it was easy to talk about disguising errands and hiding truth. But under her gaze, my mind was blank. Nothing mattered but being a good servant.
“I...,” was all I could say. My mind ran in circles. I couldn’t lie, but I couldn’t tell her the truth. But I couldn’t lie, and I could not tell her the truth.
Yuyuko put a finger on my mouth. “Wait. You’re embarrassed about something.” She put a hand to my cheek. “Your face is bright red. You weren’t two-timing on me, were you?”
“Two-timing?” I said. I didn’t know what the phrase meant.
“Finding a new mistress,” she said. “I’ll be the first to admit, Yukari is beautiful and smart and strong and wonderful. But don’t let her seduce you.” Her hand found its way to the back of my head, and she tousled my hair. “You’re mine, Youmu. I’m not letting anyone else have you.”
“No one seduced me. Yukari and I....” Again, my voice left me. Then I sighed. “Oh, if you must know. Yukari was planning a surprise for you. A gift. She asked for my help, out of sheer kindness on her part. She wanted to give me the opportunity to contribute, to show how I value you. But I wasn’t supposed to tell you.”
“Aw,” said Yuyuko, giving a hurtfully sweet smile. “That’s nice of you two. Well don’t you worry. I’ll pretend I’m none the wiser. When you give me whatever it is, you’ll see me implode with surprised delight!”
“Um. Implode, Mistress?”
“Yes. Just like this!”
Just as she had earlier, she wrapped both arms around my head and crushed my to her chest. All thoughts of my nakedness gone, I struggled for every gasp of air. I found a new technique for retaining my ability to breath while she hugged me. I levered my forehead against her chest and used the strength of my neck to free my mouth and nose. I had to keep my eyes closed while doing this, or see down into her robe.
“Oh, Youmu,” she said. “Some days, I think I might love you too much. Like a little girl who hugs her favorite doll so tightly that she breaks it.”
“That does seem an imminent possibility,” I said.
She pulled back, looked me in the eyes. She caressed the bangs off my brow, and she pressed a kiss to my forehead.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you,” she said. “Promise you’re not going to leave me for Yukari?”
“I promise,” I said. “You’re my mistress, Yuyuko-sama. It’s been that way my whole life, and it will be that way my whole life.”
She smiled. “Good.” She hugged me again, but not in a skull-crunching wrestle hold. This was an honest hug, her arms around my back and her chin over my shoulder. I hugged her back.
“By the way,” she said. “Do put some clothes on before going to bed. Maidens don’t sleep in the nude. It’s inappropriate.”
I laughed. Whether from Yuyuko’s silliness, or I was so tired that it made me giddy, I don’t know.
Thinking on it, I don’t believe it matters.
Yuyuko left me. I was soon in my bedclothes and under the covers, ready to sleep. I looked up at the sky outside the window above my bed. The night was dark and featureless. Silence reigned in Hakugyokuro. I heard only my own breath and heartbeat.
This place was going to change, I knew. But wasn’t that always so? Yukari had said that things are always moving to either good or evil, and I know that to be true. I hoped that my actions, sabotaging the Saigyou Ayakashi, would have an ultimately good effect. I admit that hope with a slight shame. I didn’t hope for the best for its own sake, simply because it’s right to desire that good things happen. My motive was more personal.
I would do it for Yuyuko, of course. Only her interest I cared for. Seeing her smile for a century would be worth seeing her cry for five minutes. She deserved that from me. For her, I could do no less than everything. I could give her no less than my all. She is, after all, the mistress whom I love.
Back to Part FiveReturn to Chapter Index