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After ensuring my mistress and her guests were settled in the front room, I went back into the kitchen. While they chattered whatever it is immortals talk about, I would prepare a plate of tea and crackers as an appetizer. That would tide them over and give me time to make diner.
Upon stepping into the kitchen, I first took off my swords and rested them in a corner. As much as I hate having them out of reach, they get in the way while I’m cooking. I tied on an apron, got some timber burning in the wood stove, washed my hands under the water pump. When I had a good fire going, I turned to get a tea kettle from the cabinet. I jumped in surprise to see Ran standing behind me. I let out an embarrassingly girlish yelp. I resented this fox woman for taking me off guard.
“Goodness’s sake!” I said, catching my breath. “Please go back to the front room. I’ll bring out dinner when it’s ready.”
Ran stood still. Chen wasn’t with her, but she still held that heavy sack. She looked around the kitchen, judging. I couldn’t tell whether she thought good or ill of the place. It was obviously smaller than she would have it. The tips of her hat grazed the ceiling.
She looked down at me. “I will help you cook.”
“That isn’t necessary,” I said.
“It is.” Her voice was always deep and even. “You have amenities here I thought were reserved for mortals. A physical dwelling. Running water. Wood to burn. I saw the garden out back. But one thing you lack is the flesh of dead things.” She stepped over to the cutting board on the counter. She hoisted the bag onto it, then tore away from its contents. There sat a large chunk of raw meat, big enough to feed several men. She began looking through the various drawers, trying to find a suitable butcher knife.
“I eat meat at my meals,” she said. “You might be satisfied with a vegetarian diet, but I’m not.”
“Eat whatever you wish,” I said. “But at least stay out of my kitchen. It isn’t a guest’s place. I can cook—”
She looked back at me, and her face alone silenced me. My breath caught in my chest. She seemed even less human than she had one minute ago. The fur on her tails bristled. Her eyes glowed bright orange, showing some youkai energy inside her.
“You have no meat here,” she said. “I won’t trust a good side of pork to one who’s never prepared it before. I will cook dinner. You may either help, and show me where the knives are in this abominably organized kitchen, or go and keep Chen company.”
My mouth hung open for a moment, but I closed it. I swallowed, took a deep breath. This was ridiculous. I was being ordered around by a guest. I ached for the weight of my swords on my back, but they were on the far side of the room, and I would have to pass Ran to get them.
What a short temper she had. But admittedly, mine was not much better. I rose to anger as quickly as she, and over such a trivial thing. Who cared whose hands made dinner? It was a disservice to my mistress and her guests to argue over it. Ran made the same mistake, but I chose to be the bigger person. Which is ironic, given our difference in stature.
“Very well,” I said. “We’ll both prepare dinner. Many hands make light work. But I hope you don’t expect to earn any allies with such an attitude.”
“No,” she said. “I’ve yet to determine whether you are an ally worth having. If I do, I’ll find another way.”
I nodded, pointed towards her. “Knives are in the leftmost drawer.”
She looked down at the drawer, opened it, found what she was looking for. She took out the heaviest cleaver and went to work on her pork.
“Thank you,” she said. “Let’s begin.”
We made dinner. Ran cut the meat into slices and prepared it in different ways, seasoning the smaller strips and frying larger cuts in oil. I worked with grains and vegetables as I was used to. Despite my adherence to tradition, I was glad she was the one cooking the meat. She was experienced with it, and I wasn’t. I hate doing anything poorly.
We moved around each other in the kitchen too small for us both. Ran was surprisingly courteous. She gave me as much space as she could, allowing me first access to any cupboard or cabinet if we both needed it at the same time. She said thank you each time she asked something of me. I wondered if this was because she felt guilty for challenging me earlier, or if she always acted so politely. I couldn’t tell. Youkai were unknown to me.
Eventually, dinner was ready. Ran had prepared every bit of the meat she had brought, spread out on two plates. The look and smell were mouth-watering. I eat meat rarely, not only for the lack of supply in Hakugyokuro. My late teacher once told me that meat is an occasional indulgence, except for those who must keep large muscles in tone. My work of managing an arboretum requires more energy than muscle, and rice with vegetables provides that amply. The food I brought to the table was of the same type I usually ate, if prepared with more grandeur. A little more seasoning, and the best dishes from our cabinets for presentation. We had guests to entertain.
Ran and I brought the food out to the dining room. Yuyuko and Yukari sat on either side of the table, a mostly empty tea tray between them. Chen had curled up on the floor, her head resting in Yukari’s lap, who was absently scratching her ears. Yukari had set her umbrella in the corner of the room, and Chen’s beret hung off the handle.
“Finally, Youmu,” said Yuyuko. “One more minute and I was going in there after you. Why is Ran helping you with the food?”
“I expect Ran gave her little choice in the matter,” said Yukari.
Both we servants were silent. We set the food and dishes on the table, both sitting beside our mistress. I moved the tea tray aside and began dishing up for Yuyuko. Ran did the same for her mistress and Chen.
“Wake up, kitty,” said Yukari, gently pushing Chen’s head off her lap. “Food’s ready.”
I suspected the cat had long since smelled the food approaching, but wanted to cuddle with Yukari as long as she could. Chen sat up straight and rubbed her eyes, letting out a moaning purr. Sleep left her quickly enough when Ran passed a pork chop to her.
“So, Yukari, enough about me,” said Yuyuko as I set a bowl of rice before her. “Tell me what’s happening with you. Anything interesting in the mortal world?”
“Oh yes,” said Yukari. “Quite a lot. Did you hear about last summer?”
“Summer?” said Yuyuko. “Some of the ghosts were frightened, I remember. I never learned why.”
“I might know.” Yukari took a slice of pork in her chopsticks and laid the whole piece in her mouth. She chewed and swallowed, making eating look like a glamorous thing for only the beautiful and rich.
“You’re referring to the dark clouds, Mistress?” said Ran.
“Yes,” said Yukari. “Mid-summer last year, an anomaly of weather covered Gensokyo for several days. A reddish mist was in the sky by day, and hideous black clouds by night. Very strange.”
“Hmm,” said Yuyuko. Our guest might think she still had my mistress’s attention, but I knew better. Yukari had already lost her. Food was more important.
“The incident ended fairly quickly, so I thought there was no danger to Gensokyo,” said Yukari. “But it was an odd event, so I investigated. I found the unnatural clouds were magical in nature, and came from one of the few places such a massive energy flow could originate. The vampire family, who lives in the old mansion on the lake, had a bit of a spat.”
“That is the kindest word one could use,” said Ran. “They nearly destroyed many square miles of land.”
“But they didn’t,” said Yukari, glancing sideways at her shikigami. “And to ensure the problem didn’t recur, I had Ran plant the Staff of Suppression in the woods near their home. Two powerful mages live there, so I trusted they would find Lavatein and put it to good use. They did, just as planned. But more interesting than these events were the people. I’ve known about the vampire sisters for a long time, but two obscure humans were also involved.”
The word humans took back Yuyuko’s attention. She looked up at Yukari and said, “Really?” Though it came out as Reary? past her mouthful of rice and carrot.
Yukari nodded, taking a sip of tea. “The shrine maiden who lives near the Boundary, on the opposite side of Gensokyo from my home. And a young witch who lives in a hovel in the Forest of Magic. They to went to the lake mansion and confronted its residents.”
“Confronted,” said Ran. “Another kind word, if the fairies speak truly.”
The room was quiet, silence heavy on us. Except for Chen, who was wise enough to ignore us and shove down her food as quickly as possible.
“But....” said Yuyuko. “Their spirits never passed through Hakugyokuro. Which means—”
“They survived,” said Yukari. “Amazing as it sounds. Going into a such a situation, they shouldn’t have lived. Yet the story gets even stranger. When I heard of all this, I also learned there’s been an addition to the vampire’s staff since I last looked at the place. A young woman, most of the way to adulthood but not quite there, living there as the vampire’s maid.”
“Maid?” I said. “I wouldn’t call her such. A vampire would only live with a human to feed off it. She would be food, not serve it.”
“Not so,” said Yukari. “This human has lived there all her life with none of her blood sucked. I don’t know whose virtue that is, the human’s or the vampire’s. I’ve only learned of this recently, of course, human life spans being so short.”
At this point, I noticed Ran. Her eyes were fixed on her plate, and her expression on a human face would have showed annoyance. I wondered why. She looked like she had something to say, but bit her tongue. It was the least prudent thing I could have done, but I prodded her.
“Lady Ran?” I said. “Is something the matter?”
She looked up at me, chewing. She swallowed.
“No,” she said. “Nothing.”
She kept her eyes on mine for a long second before going back to her food.
Something wasn’t being said here.
Yukari noticed something pass between Ran and I, even if she wasn’t yet sure that she had felt it. She was about to call it out, and I braced myself. But Yuyuko got in ahead of her.
“After dinner,” my mistress said, “we should go sit out on the back patio. You remember, Yukari, the waterland vista is absolutely lovely in the evenings.”
“I remember,” said Yukari. “Hakugyokuro has stunning sunsets, especially for a realm that has no sun. Ah, but you should have seen, just yesterday. Gensokyo had a light snowfall which broke just before dusk, leaving the mountain tops peaked with white, and the sun went down behind them like an orb of molten glass. It was breathtaking.”
“I’m sorry I missed it,” said Yuyuko. “But then again, a week or so ago, you should have seen it here. In the midmorning, the sky seemed to reflect the water on the ground. There was an intricate webwork of blue threads in the clouds, all rippling and shimmering like light off the surface of a lake. How lovely it was.”
The two of them led off into an inane discussion about whose country was more beautiful. I closed my ears and focused on the meal, wishing for this to be over.
“Speaking of lakes. Have you ever seen fish hopping over the waters to catch their breakfast before dawn? There’s so many of these in Gensokyo’s lake, it looks like a flock of birds popping in and out of an inverse puddle of sky.”
“I bet that’s nothing compared to the cherry trees here. In the autumn when their petals fall, you can walk through the gardens and feel like there’s a pink snowstorm around you. It’s a charming feeling.”
And it did end, but not before the most of this I could endure. Taking a glance at Ran, I could tell she felt the same way. Chen, again, was the smartest of us. She ate.
Dinner was done. Yuyuko and Yukari took Chen out to the back patio, while I stayed behind to clear the table. Ran stayed too, gathered up the dishes and followed me to kitchen. I turned and faced her in the doorway.
“Please don’t say you’re going to clean up as well,” I said.
“Very well,” she said. “I won’t say it.”
But she didn’t put the dishes down. Just stood there, waiting for me to move. I put a palm to my forehead, where I felt the bare beginnings of a headache.
“I’ve never had such a difficult guest,” I said.
“Nor have I been entertained by such an arrogant hostess,” she said. “The two of us will no doubt become best friends, if we can keep from killing each other. But tonight, I wash dishes in a stranger’s home for more than the sake of appearing polite. There’s something you wish to ask me.”
I lowered my hand, looking up at the dish-wielding youkai woman, and I learned something of her then. Not only was she large, and strong, and possessed some level of magic power.
She was also intelligent. Her wits were as sharp as my swords. Sly and subtle like....
Well, what else was there?
Like a fox.
Ran and I washed up. I drew a sink of hot water and focused on scrubbing dishes clean. She spread herself over other tasks. Scraping off the plates and dumping out half-empty cups. Packaging up reusable bits of food for leftovers. Drying the dishes I had cleaned and putting them away. It was the same as cooking dinner, her moving around me. Asking where things went, but only needing to be told once. Apologizing if she accidentally bumped me or if her tails brushed by me. I found myself enjoying her presence, to an extent. Cleaning went much faster with her help.
“So,” she said, running a dry dishcloth through the basin of a frying pan. “Will you ask?”
I looked over my shoulder, peeking out the kitchen and into the dining room. It was still empty, which meant Yuyuko and Yukari were still probably outside. Beyond hearing.
“I do have a question.” I put some shoulder power into cleaning a pot. “But I don’t know if it’s what you’re thinking.”
“It is,” she said. “I would wager a tail on it.”
That made me smile. I took a brief glance at her hind, quickly counted the plumage there. She hadn’t lost too many bets. She still had all nine.
“Then I’ll start with this,” I said. “What is Yukari to Gensokyo?”
“You begin by asking what you already know,” said Ran. “Yukari is to Gensokyo what Yuyuko is to Hakugyokuro. The realm’s ruler in power, if not in deeds.”
“And when you first arrived. You mentioned a parallel between the Saigyou Ayakashi and the Boundary.”
“So I did. I now see that parallel to be accurate. Your country’s over-sized tree, and the border that completely encircles my country. Both are living talismans of their mistress’s power, but also of their limitations.”
“What limitations?” I said.
She raised an orange eyebrow at me. “You haven’t noticed? Why is it that the largest tree in the netherworld never blossoms? It symbolizes something, though I don’t know what. I would guess it means that even a mighty spirit like Yuyuko can’t defy death. All things are born in a bloody and painful process. They live and struggle though hard lives, and eventually lie down to weary deaths. Lucky are those who die with any measure of honor.”
“Your definition of death is entirely wrong,” I said. “That among other things. Death is not bad. It’s not a disgrace or a submission. It’s a passing from one stage of life to another. True death, as I define it, is when one refuses to embrace the forces of life. When he lives in fear and anger, instead giving himself to courage and love. An individual can be on either side of that equation at any time, before or after leaving the body.”
“Your definition works as well as mine,” said Ran. “Tell me about the cowardly and hateful spirits. About those who die while holding great grudges in their hearts. Or a love of money. Or the flesh. Or of the self, and loathing for all else. Do vice-ridden spirits come to Hakugyokuro?”
“No, sadly,” I said. “They are trapped in the mortal world, until they can give up that which keeps them there. It’s also as if this place’s light repels them, like a candle flame that would shoo moths away instead of drawing them.”
“Then why not go and get them? Yuyuko is great enough to compel spirits away from mortal obsessions, isn’t she?”
“She is, but it would be a meaningless gesture. She could keep those wayward souls here, but a man you force to act under duress learns nothing about right or wrong. He learns only to hate you. If ever Yuyuko released her hold on them, the corrupted spirits would flood right back out of Hakugyokuro, with nothing gained. Their presence here is meaningless until they come by their own choice. But they won’t make that choice until they wish the darkness lifted from their hearts. It’s a tragedy, for some.”
“Tragic indeed, if you speak truly,” said Ran. “But you prove my point. Yuyuko is powerless against death.”
I opened my mouth to rebut, but no words came to me. I ran through the chain of logic once more, and came to the same conclusion. Awful as it was, Ran was right. Even my mistress, the mighty ruler of the netherworld, couldn’t change people’s hearts against their will.
Was that why the Saigyou Ayakashi never bloomed?
“Your point is made,” I said, as much as I disliked it. “But if our mistresses are equals, as you implied, then Yukari must suffer some weakness of her own.”
“She does, and I’m glad you came back to that. We’re running out of dirty dishes, so I’ll be brief. Yukari can’t go outside the Boundary.”
That surprised me. I looked at her, expecting her to confirm what she said.
“That can’t be,” I said. “She is outside the Boundary. She came here, with you and your shikigami in tow.”
Ran shook her head. “This place isn’t beyond Gensokyo. Only a different aspect of the same. And even Hakugyokuro doesn’t lead anywhere new. You can only go here from there, and there from here.”
“The ghosts travel beyond,” I said. “The postmortem who come here stay only for a while. They move on, past the Sanzu River at Hakugyokuro’s edge.”
“Then your musty dead humans are mightier than both our mistresses put together. Yukari can’t leave either the mortal or immortal worlds, except to visit the other for a while. I’ve seen her try. With a great deal of frustration, I might add.”
I looked back down into my dirty soap water, leaning my weight against the sink.
“I don’t understand. I thought Yukari’s manipulation of gaps let her travel anywhere.”
“They fail at the Boundary. The gaps operate by opening nothing where there is something.” She made a gesture, as if hitting something with a two-handed hammer. “Like knocking a hole in a wall, then using the edges of the hole to pull yourself through. But it only works where there is a wall to begin with, and a floor to hold you up on the other side. The Boundary is the end of metaphorical walls and floors, like an expansive bottomless pit. Even my mistress can’t tear a hole of nothing where there’s already nothing.”
“Is that all?” I said.
“I don’t know. It seems to me Yukari isn’t allowed outside the Boundary because she is the Boundary. She could no more go beyond it than you could stand outside yourself.”
I looked out the kitchen window. It was nearing full night outside. The lesser light would reveal my ghost half.
“Wait an hour or so,” I said. “You’ll see that isn’t so incredible as it sounds.”
“No. Yukari told me about your semi-corporeal physiology, and that’s not what I’m referring to.”
The dishes were done, and I felt no more need to clean for the time being. I reached into the sink and pulled the plug from the drain, then got a dry cloth and wiped my hands. Ran was putting away the last few bowls.
“I know,” I said. “But that brings us to what I’ve been meaning to ask.”
“At last,” said Ran.
“By saying that Yukari’s life is the Boundary, you say that she completely surrounds Gensokyo. That she knows the entire country, and all that happens in it. Is that true?”
“Half true,” said Ran. “She can know anything within Gensokyo, if she pays attention to it.”
“Then what about the disaster she mentioned over dinner?” I said. “The mist that covered the sky?”
Ran wasn’t looking at me, instead running her cloth slowly and carefully over the last bowl. Her mouth widened into a feral grin, showing sharp teeth.
“What of it?” she said.
“Yukari spoke of that incident as if she learned of it after the fact. That makes little sense. Even if her awareness can only be in one place at a time, I can’t believe a mist thick enough to block the sun would escape her notice.”
“You’re quite right.”
“Giving the Suppression Staff to the vampires was a fine deed, but surely not better than intervening directly. Why didn’t Yukari act?”
“Simple,” Ran finally put the last bowl in the cabinet. She put down the washcloth. “She slept through it.”
I blinked. “She what?”
“She was asleep,” said Ran. “One evening she went to bed, and the sky was clear. When she awoke, the sky was clear again.”
“But.” I ran my memory back to last year, remembering how long the ghosts had fretted. “The sky mist lasted for a week.”
“So Yukari slept for seven straight days?”
“Nine, if I recall.” Ran counted on her fingers. “No, ten actually. And do believe, it was not for a lack of effort on my part. I became so frustrated at one point that I....” She pinched the bridge of her nose between two fingers, squeezed her eyes shut. A very human gesture. “I did something I’m not proud of.”
I waited. No prying would make her speak. If she wanted to tell me, she would.
She took a deep breath, let it out. “I threw her out a window.”
“Did you?” I said. “Ran, tell me. Where is House Yakumo?”
“In the mountains. Like my mistress said, across the valley from the Hakurei Shrine.”
“So when you say throw out the window, you mean to toss something out in the courtyard. Maybe watch it roll off into the foothills.”
“No,” said Ran. “Our home is much higher up. It’s carved into the rocky mountainside, just below the lowest snows that top the peaks in summertime.”
“You’re joking,” I said.
“I wish I were. Like testing the depth of a well by throwing in a stone and listening for the splash, I learned how elevated my mistress’s palace was that day. She took quite a while to hit the valley floor. She even bounced off the Boundary once on the way down. It was a sight.”
I shook my head. “The fall would have killed her.”
“Not her. There’s a small woodland in the hills directly below our home. I later found her down there, snoring in a patch of pine needles. Her nightgown was torn, but that was all. She looked like she might have lain down to sleep there, if not for the hole of broken branches above her. She must have made quite a racket when she fell through the canopy.”
I couldn’t believe this. Ran seemed serious. Either she had an immensely sarcastic sense of humor, or she was telling the truth.
“I felt guilty, as you can imagine,” she went on. “That was her favorite nightgown. I slung her over my shoulder, carried her back up to the house and threw her in bed. She awoke on her own three days later.”
“So she doesn’t know?” I said.
“I don’t believe so. She never even mentioned her ripped bedclothes. Perhaps she was too interested with my account of the of events during her sleep.”
“I could never do such a thing to my mistress.”
“I said I wasn’t proud of it,” said Ran. “Besides, throwing Yuyuko out a window would make even less sense. She would likely float away on a breeze. But now you have the answer to your question. Are you satisfied?”
“Not at all,” I said. “I would have been happier not knowing, I think.”
“As it often is with the truth,” said Ran. In a surprising friendly gesture, she put a hand on my shoulder. I wasn’t comfortable with the contact, but I allowed it. At least partly because she was strong enough to tear my arm off, and I wished to give her no reason for violence.
“Come,” she said, leading me from the kitchen. “We’re done here. Let us go rejoin our mistresses and live the evening.”
Forward to Part Three
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