The back patio isn’t actually on the rear of the house. The massive roots at the base of the Saigyou Ayakashi couch in the house on two sides, leaving just enough room for my little patch of a garden. The “back” patio is really not far from the front door. A wide wooden deck stands up two feet, with a short plank of stairs running down to the ground in the back corner. On the deck there is one table surrounded by several chairs, in case a party wants to dine outdoors. Three more reclined chairs, made from bamboo and wicker, sit around the deck in no order.
The patio was built here, no doubt, to enjoy the view of the stream. A thin blue channel of water flows from under one of the Ayakashi’s roots, flowing in a sharp curve like a hairpin. At one point, the stream is arched over with a small wooden bridge. The stream then falls off a slope several yards away from the house, making a miniature waterfall. Sitting from the patio, one see can part of the pool at the slope’s base, and how it flows away in a delta that goes for some distance. The water’s flow reminds me of a beam of light diffused into many colors when shone through a prism, except that the water stays crystal blue the whole way.
This is a good place to sit, when thinking or relaxing. My mistress and her guests were enjoying it. Ran sat on the deck’s edge, her large legs easily reaching the ground. Yuyuko sat back on one of the reclined chairs. Chen was testing her luck, climbing one of the Ayakashi’s roots that stood three times her height.
I stepped out onto the deck, and Ran turned to see me. A strange look passed her face, mimicking the feeling I’d known towards her once or twice this evening. Awe and confusion.
“Look at you,” she said. “So this is what Yukari meant.”
I tilted my head at her. At first I didn’t know what she was talking about. Then I noticed she wasn’t looking at me, or at least not my physical self. Her eyes were on my ghost.
As I came into the evening light, what looked like another Youmu appeared beside me. She is my height, but stands above me for her feet hovering off the ground. Her face shows what feel, scowling when I’m angry and smiling when I’m amused. Her mouth is usually closed, and she never speaks. She wears a dusty white version of my dress and vest. The clothes are transparent, but so is the body beneath them. I suffer no lack of modesty when people see my ghost, for the spiritual body shows only the slightest hint of any gender characteristics. One could see a thin waist and slightly wider hips, maybe the barest budding of female breasts, but nothing more suggestive than that.
My spirit appears mostly the same as my body, with one important exception. My ghost half has no swords on her back. Only my physical self carries the weapons passed down to me.
I bowed to Ran, both my body and ghost at once. Like twin sisters giving a greeting.
“Your first sight of a half-ghost,” I said. “What are your thoughts?”
“That I was wrong to think I had seen all strange things,” said Ran. She would have said more, but something took her attention. A sharp snap of broken wood cracked through the air. Chen had put too much of her weight on a weak foothold, and the Ayakashi’s root bark gave way under her. She fell a dozen feet to the ground.
Ran stood. “Chen!” She stalked over to the root. Chen was unhurt, having hit the ground with the grace of a cat and the careless hardiness of a human child. Ran grabbed her by the vest and hauled her up, getting her face within good scolding distance.
“Be more careful!” Ran sad. “No more climbing on the trees.”
“Aw,” said Chen. “But it’s not high enough to hurt me. I’ll be fine.”
“It’s not your safety that worries me, but acting irresponsible in front of our hostess. Come back to the deck and behave, or I’ll be sure Yukari knows you’re being bad.”
Chen’s face lit up. “Yeah! Tell her! Some day I want to fall as far as her and not get hu—”
Ran placed a finger on Chen’s mouth, stopping her in mid word.
“Silence, little one,” said Ran. “Some things are not spoken.”
“Speaking of which,” I looked over to my mistress, who was lounging on her chair as if sunbathing. “Where is Yukari-sama?”
“She went down to look at the pool,” said Yuyuko. She stretched, letting out a pleased little squeal. “Ran! Bring Chen over here. I have something fun for her to do.”
Ran brought her shikigami back to the patio, dropped her on the ground before it. Chen hopped to her feet, patterns of dirt all over her skirt and vest. She didn’t brush herself off, so Ran did it for her.
“Look closely now, Chen,” Yuyuko held out a hand, as if holding up an invisible bowl. Slowly, faint magical power gathered in her palm. Purple and pink shades of light swirled together and bundled into a tight nugget in her palm, the size of a large insect cocoon. Its surface rippled and shifted, as if something inside tried to break free. Then it split from the top. A bug-eyed creature poked its head out. It dragged itself free from the cocoon, but seemed made of the same energy. It kicked its shell away and spread a pair of beautiful wings, covered with patterns as if drawn by an Eastern mural artist.
The result was a magically constructed wire-frame of a butterfly, sitting in Yuyuko’s hand. Its antennae twitched and its wings fluttered to keep balance as Yuyuko’s arm moved below it.
She brought the butterfly close to her mouth, as if to kiss it. She blew on it gently, and her breath seemed to give it life. The bug took flight, scattering pink and purple sparks from its wings, like pixie dust. It flew to Chen. She grinned as its light colored her face. It flew just above her, and she reflexively reached up to snatch it. Her hands clapped together over her head, but caught only empty air. The butterfly dipped behind her, staying out of reach.
Chen turned and went after it, jumping and reaching and swiping. The butterfly darted every which way, always staying just out of grasp. But it never went too high or led Chen far away.
Ran sat back down on the edge of the deck. “Thank you, Lady Saigyouji. I’m sorry she’s such a bother.”
“No bother at all,” said Yuyuko. She rolled her head to the side, looking to me. “Youmu, would you go check on Yukari? She’s been gone for a while.”
I had been standing by this whole time, confounded as Chen at the butterfly spell. My mistress rarely gave any visible display of her power. Despite spending my whole life either serving her or training for that service, I didn’t know all that she could do. Not by any measure.
“As you wish,” I said. Enforcing curfew on the queen of the mortal realm wouldn’t be my happiest duty of the evening. I hopped off the patio and made my way over the small bridge on the stream. My ghost half came along, shoulders slumped and knees bent as it levitated behind.
If it were possible for sapphire to flow as liquid, so would the pool below the waterfall appear. Except where the falling stream splashes down, the surface is perfectly even and smooth. No ripples bouncing off the pool’s edges or colliding with each other. No resonant chaos, like you see from any other moving body of water. This pool is a place of peace. I’ve been tempted to bathe in it, to feel its calmness around my whole body. But I don’t dare. Any human, no matter how mature or collected within herself, would be a radical disease to this pool. I dare only to wet my feet, sitting on the rock that juts out over the water’s surface.
I’ve spent many hours alone here. Listening to the soothing patter of the waterfall. Soaking my feet bare, cold water going between my toes, which feels particularly good after a hard day’s gardening. Occasionally taking a sip from a slab mug filled with steaming tea. Those are some contended moments.
Looking down on the pool from above, I saw Yukari. She sat on that stone. Her feet were bare and hanging into the water. Her shoes sat on the ground beside her, their laces untied and resting in the soft grass. There’s a stone staircase leading from where I stood down to the waterside. The steps are uneven and rounded, so I took care as I descended.
I approached Yukari from behind. Before speaking, I couldn’t help taking one second to admire her hair. It cascaded down her back as if it were the second waterfall of the place, but this one of gold. Rich, full and vibrant. I felt a sick twinge of jealousy, which I immediately rebuked myself for. No matter if I wanted good looks. No matter if I wanted to be taller, or have a fuller chest, or have long and pretty hair. I was a swordsman, and Saigyouji’s guardian. My duties were all that should care for, regardless of a weak part of me wanted to be beautiful.
“Yukari-sama,” I said, stepping up behind her. “Yuyuko-sama asks after you.”
She gave no answer. Instead, I heard a terrifying sound that froze my feet to the ground.
She sniffed. Not a gentle inhale to smell the night air. Not even the crude sound of clearing one’s nose after dinner.
Yukari was crying.
“Oh Youmu,” she said, her back still turned to me. Her voice was thick and wet. “You shouldn’t see me like this.”
I had absolutely nothing to say. My jaw worked up and down, trying to do something useful. But I was dumb for the moment.
I like to think of myself as a brave person. I can protect my Lady from any threat. I’ve stood eye-to-eye with the strongest of youkai. I can dismantle beasts many times my size with a few swipes. The things my blade can’t cut are next to none.
But here, at the pool which was meant as a place of peace and serenity, a woman was weeping. A woman who, in the strictest sense, was my ally. This made me realize how wrong I was, thinking myself courageous. Nothing scares me worse than tears shed by those who are mightier than me. I have no idea what comfort to give, or how to give it, or if offering comfort is even appropriate. I’m a warrior, not a counselor. I know how to destroy grief, not soothe it.
“It was rude of me to run off,” said Yukari. “But I couldn’t hold it in any longer. Seeing her like this, under the shadow of this deadwood.”
She turned her head to the side, looking up at the Saigyou Ayakashi towering above us. I saw one side of her face. Her cheek was wet and bright red. She made even crying a beautiful thing, as though any who saw her were honor bound to weep along with her.
“Look at it,” she said. “It’s so big. It’s meant as a monument to life and beauty. But instead it stands for emptiness and death.” I caught her eye. She looked back at me, turning her body part way. She smiled. It was heartbreaking to see her smile through her sadness. “And look at you. Healthy in both body and spirit, I see.”
As with Ran, I took a moment to understand what she meant. I take the disposition between my body and ghost for granted. I rarely meet anyone who comments on the two being separate.
“Th- thank you,” I said. My stupid mouth would choose this moment to stumble. “Is something wrong, Yukari-sama?”
Her smile faded. She turned back to the pool. “Please come sit with me, Youmu. I’m embarrassed, but now that you’re here, I could use some company.”
That was last thing I wanted to hear. I had hoped she would politely brush me off. No Youmu, don’t worry about me. Youkai troubles and all. You know how it is.
Except I didn’t know how it was, and I had no desire to learn. This woman’s problems would be far beyond me. I hate nothing worse than knowing of a wrong that I can’t right. Part of me preferred blissful ignorance.
I was very close to enacting that wish. Close to giving the polite brush-off I hoped she would give me. I’m sorry, Yukari-sama. I’m expected back at the house. But I’ll send for Yuyuko-sama. She’ll understand your worries better than I could. Something stopped me from doing so.
My late teacher had often told me to never turn away a soul in need, no matter how great or small. A young Youmu had asked, “No matter how great or small the what? The person? Or the need?” My teacher had responded with only a nod.
Even the youngest Youmu felt a deep hatred for cowardice, and a love for bravery. For charity. For kindness. For selflessness. Those virtues my late teacher epitomized, and the virtues he tried hardest to give me.
I took a deep breath in through my mouth, let it out my nose.
“As you wish,” I said. I stepped up to her side, but stayed standing. Sitting on the ground is a clunky endeavor while wearing my swords. That, and I was on eye level with Yukari only so long as she sat on the rock.
“As I wish?” she said. Looking down into the pool, kicking her feet. “You’re not very good at giving sympathy.”
“No,” I said. Honesty is also a virtue. “But I want to try. Please tell me what troubles you.”
She looked at me, and she laughed. The laugh of a woman who sees a sliver of goodness in her sorrow.
“I suppose you can’t help it,” she said. “You are what you are. As for what troubles me, just look up.”
I did, giving the tree a glance. “The Ayakashi has been this way for a long time. No harm has come of it.”
“So says the ignorant. So says the blind man who thinks he knows the meaning of beauty, but has never seen an autumn sunset. Or the faces of his loved ones.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“I know. My words would be unnecessary if you did.” Yukari stood, brushing off the back of her dress. “I’ve known Yuyuko much longer than you’ve lived, my dear Youmu. She’s now only a dark reduction of her past self. Long ago, she was a grand spirit who filled all of Hakugyokuro with light and merriment. The trees here blossomed all year round, the Ayakashi greatest of them. Like now, it could be seen from anywhere in the netherworld. But as a queen of cherry blossoms, bursting with bright petals of pink and red and white and every shade in between, instead of the skeletal mockery you see now.”
“I never knew Hakugyokuro was any different than today,” I said. “This is the netherworld. It is, by its nature, timeless unto itself.”
“Timeless, yes, but not unchanging.” Yukari dried her face, wiping a gloved hand over her cheeks. “Spiritual matters may stand outside the mortal realm’s flow of time, but they aren’t static. All things are always moving closer either to good or to evil, don’t you think?”
I was reluctant to agree, but I nodded. She spoke the truth.
“The saddest part is, I know why Yuyuko turned for the worse,” she said. “And I believe you do too.”
I started to shake my head. To answer that no, I didn’t know why things had changed. But I remembered something. The conversation with Ran.
“Do you mean...?” I let my voice trail off, but she didn’t fill in my silence. “You mean the lost souls?”
“Yes,” said Yukari. She squeezed her eyes shut and turned away from me, as if fighting down a fresh wave of tears. “It’s breaks Yuyuko’s heart every day. I can see it, and it breaks my heart too. That’s why I don’t visit more often. It’s like visiting a terminal relative, your poor sister or cousin who’s going to die any day now.”
I felt a sting in my heart. I actually had lost a relative, who had gone from half-ghost to a full one. Even those of my bloodline are human and mortal. We live long, but we grow old and we die, to pass the Sanzu River and into the unknown lands beyond.
“But Yuyuko can’t die,” I said. “No being can die more than once.”
“That depends on your definition of death, doesn’t it?” said Yukari. “What if death isn’t a one-time event, but a chronic condition? The opposite of living. A sickness of the heart and mind, that darkens the world around a soul.” She looked back at me. “What is your definition of death?”
I had no argument. Again, she was right. And again, I was reminded of my talk with Ran.
“The same,” I said.
Yukari nodded. She raised both hands, delicately flexing her fingers in their gloves. She plucked at each finger one at a time, and slid gloves both off. Her hands were bare.
“Youmu,” she said, dropping the gloves to the grass. “When I look in your eyes, I see great strength. The courage and might of a warrior. In an ironic way, it makes you very feminine.”
She stepped towards me. Coming uncomfortably close. I wanted to back away, but my feet wouldn’t move.
“You’re very pretty,” she said. She put a hand to my face, cupped my cheek in her palm. The feel of her skin on mine was electrifying, both wonderful and painful. Beautiful and horrid. She leaned down, her eyes coming closer. Little rings violet. I couldn’t tell she had been crying. Her face was perfect now. Perfect and pale and lovely.
“Tell me, Youmu,” she said. “Have you ever considered becoming a wife?”
Even in this daze, my answer was immediate.
“No?” she said. “A shame. There are many young men in Gensokyo who would love you.”
“My life is my duty to Yuyuko-sama,” I said. “A husband and children would distract me.”
She smiled. “Half-ghost children. There’s a thought. A bunch of little Youmus running around. I can almost picture....”
Then the smile slid off her face. Her mouth opened and her eyes became distant, as if realizing some great thing.
“Half-ghost,” she said. Her eyes met mine again. “That’s it! You’re a half-ghost. That just might work!”
Both her hands had clamped onto my shoulders at some point. She was jerking me back and forth from excitement.
“What!” I said. “Please let go of me!”
“Sorry!” Her hands flew off my shoulders, but only long enough to wrap me into a deathgrip hug. My lungs had to work hard for each breath. My head was crushed into the second pair of large breasts that day.
“Youmu!” she said. “I think you can do it. You can save Yuyuko.”
“Saff her fom wha?” I said, muffled. I wondered what expression my ghost half had on her face this moment.
“Haven’t you paid any attention? We can save her from that cursed tree, and keep this place from becoming a necropolis. But—” She pushed me back, peeling my face off of her chest. I gasped in a breath, and she mashed a finger over my lips to shush me.
“But quietly!” She whispered. She glanced back towards the house. The waterfall slope kept it from our sight. “Yuyuko can’t know. That would ruin it.”
“Ruin what?” I matched her whisper. “Please stop speaking as if we both knew what you were talking about.”
That was the first time I used brusque words with a being greater than myself, with the exception of my own mistress. I couldn’t feel guilty over it. I wondered if I was weakening in my late teacher’s lessons and becoming less honorable.
“Oh dear,” said Yukari. “I’m sorry. You’re right. I should explain.”
Her hands were all over me again. Her fingers stroked the back of my neck and petted my hair, as if comforting a kitten. I tingled all over at her touch, but wanted to pull away. Zero personal space made me uncomfortable.
“But not here,” she said. “Will you come for a walk with me, Youmu? So the two of us may grow acquainted?”
“If you wish,” I said. “I must return to Yuyuko-sama, but I can delay if there is an urgent matter.”
“Very urgent.” Yukari took my hand in hers and began walking, pulling me along. “As urgent as Hakugyokuro itself, and thus Gensokyo along with it. Come with me.”
Forward to Part Four
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