Topic: And What Alice Found There  (Read 30393 times)

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And What Alice Found There
« on: May 01, 2011, 10:41:50 am »
Minerva shut the door behind her, pulled off her hat to shake out her hair, and then did a double-take at the other person in the room.

She had paid a premium for the use of one of the inn's private rooms, giving the innkeeper a vague explanation about needing a quiet space to prepare for her performances. Further incentive for a lack of questions had been paid, possibly overpaid. This had thus far failed to make a dent in Minerva's travel funds; sleepy little villages in the English countryside hardly saw the sort of money that regularly exchanged hands with nary a glance in the metropolises.

The woman casually leafing through the large leatherbound tome Minerva had left on the desk was surely no servant. A surreptitious glance at the strongbox indicated no sign of the lock being forced; whatever the woman was here for, money was not on the list. And the woman herself seemed entirely unsurprised to see Minerva, carefully closing the book and replacing it on the desk. "Miss Minerva Margatroid?"

"I'm afraid you have the advantage of me, madam," Minerva said, leaving out the obvious followup of "and who the hell are you?" The woman was attired almost garishly, in a long pink and purple dress with strange designs on the front. Her long blonde hair was coiled up inside her light pink mob cap, decorated with a thin red ribbon. A pink lace parasol hung from one arm, while the other held a folded-up paper fan. If Minerva had to guess, she would have assumed a strong Oriental influence, mixed liberally with Continental styles.

The woman smiled; it seemed like an expression she had learned by rote. "My apologies for intruding. Violet Hearn, if it pleases you. We have not met before, but your reputation precedes you."

"Does it now." Something about Violet's mannerisms seemed off, even though Minerva could not quite place her finger on it. Her accent was unidentifiably foreign, as were her choices of words, with the hint of the exotic often attributed to the lady adventurers in those shilling dreadfuls the stationers hawked. Her clothes were certainly outlandish, but there was something about her general appearance which put Minerva on edge...

"Of course. It took me a great deal of trouble to discover your present whereabouts, but I spared no expense. And surely you agree that a small country fair like this one is hardly the best stage for one of the greatest magicians of the world?"

Minerva's attention snapped back to the present. "I don't know what you're talking about, I'm sure," she said coldly. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave my room. And may I add, madam, that it is unworthy for any lady of breeding to rifle through another's belongings and literature like some common thief."

Violet's smile remained insolently in place, as did her person. "Pray do not be too hasty in dismissing my offer," she said, as though reading off a mental script. "I am no charlatan or trickster, and I assure you that my interest in your particular skills is wholly sincere. I have no small claim as a practitioner of the art myself, but the problem set before me is insurmountable, save by-"

Minerva silently opened the door, and stood by it, waiting.

Violet lowered her eyelids. "Very well, then. As a show of my goodwill, I shall depart for now." She reached into... Minerva tried not to let her confusion show, maintaining her haughtily indignant facade for the sake of getting this intruder out of her room, but it had to be some hidden pocket in her dress somewhere, and Minerva was simply too tired to have caught the sleight of hand... and laid a piece of paper onto the desk, beside the book. "I shall be in the village for the next few days. It's a lovely place, isn't it? Quiet and idyllic. Much better than the hustle and bustle of London, where the air is simply intolerable..." Still reciting off that internal script, Violet descended the stairs down to the first floor of the inn, and out of sight.

Minerva shut the door once more, and quickly strode over to the desk. She flipped through the book, scanning the handwritten pages, searching for any evidence of tampering. The book was her life's work, and she had been careful not to let anyone else handle it, save those she trusted implicitly, and that Violet Hearn person was certainly not in that class of acquaintance. Luckily, Minerva had left out certain key elements to the descriptions in the book, more out of magical prudence than anything else, but it did have the added benefit of preventing any casual plagiarist from making use of the techniques within...

Everything looked fine. No obvious signs of additions or subtractions to the contents of the book, at least.

Almost as an afterthought, Minerva picked up the piece of paper Violet had left behind. Expecting nothing more than an address to contact, or perhaps some overwrought drivel intended to convince her of whatever Violet had been selling, Minerva glanced briefly at it as she began to crumple the paper.

She stopped, eyes wide. Smoothing the paper back out, she leafed through the book, stopping at a certain design. She compared it to the sketch on the piece of paper, her finger tracing over the lines, lips moving silently in incantation...

The sound of knocking at her door startled Minerva out of her studies. It turned out to be the innkeeper, who had the uncertain expression of someone not quite believing their latest stroke of good fortune, and expecting the other shoe to drop at any moment.

"Begging your pardon, Mistress Margatroid, but I'd just like to thank you for your kindness, and, uh, we'll do our best to make ourselves worthy of your generosity. The missus is cooking up a feast right now, but she'd like to know if you'd be joining everyone for supper?"

Head still full of thaumaturgical theory, Minerva could only gape at him. "I'm sorry?"

The innkeeper writhed. "Only you've been having your meals in your room, which is your right, I'd never be saying otherwise, but your friend, uh, Mistress Hearn, said that you wanted to treat all the guests at our humble village fair to the best supper they've ever had, and she's already given us the payment, so we were wondering if we could show our appreciation. Our Shawn's been watching your puppet-show every day, and skipping his chores, but I'll not begrudge him that now, begging your pardon, mistress."

Minerva resisted the urge to slam the door in the poor innkeeper's face and get back to her work. She put on her most dazzling stage smile instead, and nodded. "I would certainly be happy to join everyone else tonight," she said, while wondering whether she actually meant it. "Please do inform me when supper is ready. Until then, Goodman, I need to prepare for... tomorrow's performance, and I'd appreciate it if I were not to be disturbed."

After the innkeeper fled in relief, Minerva forced herself to pace the small room for a few circuits, stopping midway to toss the heavier parts of her performance regalia onto the bed. Once she felt she had sufficiently calmed down, she went to the pile of luggage in the corner, and rooted around until she found a thick packet of papers. Emptying it out onto the desk, she spread out her preliminary notes, with the sketch Violet had left behind on top, and went to work.

-----

The next day, after the show in the morning, Minerva found Violet admiring, with all apparent enthusiasm, the best specimens of produce the local farms had set out proudly on display. The farmhand with the evilly gap-toothed grin manning the stall seemed oblivious to Violet's strange fashion; perhaps he believed all city folk dressed like that.

"It seems you've done me something of a favour, Miss Hearn," Minerva said conversationally.

Violet turned, the lower half of her face hidden behind her paper fan, but the smile of delight was obvious in her eyes. "Just a token of my sincerity," she said. "I enjoyed your little magic show, by the way."

Minerva had not seen Violet in the crowd, and she had been looking. "Thank you. I believe you have something you wish to discuss?"

The two women strolled in what seemed like a randomly-picked direction that nevertheless brought them away from the bustle of the rest of the festival. "Power is the problem," Violet mused, apropos of nothing. "Power enough to maintain the flow."

"So I've discovered," Minerva said. "The note you left me helped me realize what I was missing from that design. And what I was missing is not something that can be solved by a few extra drawings."

"You've been quite efficient in your designs," Violet said equably. "In fact, I don't think anyone else's style can make use of as little power as yours can, to put out a much greater effect."

"Miss Hearn, I would suggest that we not waste any more time on small talk. What do you want?"

Violet snapped her paper fan shut. "As I've mentioned yesterday, I wish to make use of your talents, Miss Margatroid. Your abilities are wonderfully suited for the great task set before us, particularly since power is very much wanting."

They had stopped in the middle of a copse of trees; Minerva's long blue stage dress snagged on the low branches and thorns, but Violet's far more complex outfit appeared to flow easily through the tangles.

"If you're looking for efficiency," Minerva said, nettled, "Reed is in London."

"Reed has already left for the Orient," Violet countered. "Hong Kong, if I'm not mistaken. He is not available. You, on the other hand..."

"... have yet to hear anything which concerns me. I am waiting, Miss Hearn."

Violet lowered her gaze, conceding the point. "A fair point. To summarize, I require assistance in saving humans from monsters."

Silence descended, broken only by the distant sounds of revelry in the village.

"If you hadn't already proven yourself with your grasp of the theory of magic," Minerva said distantly, "I'd be walking back to the village right this instant. I recommend that you do not over-extend your credit, Miss Hearn."

"My apologies. I thought that might have gotten your attention. I would rather say... I know of a way to save a certain beleaguered group of humans from the monsters hunting them. Perhaps 'monsters' is not quite the right word... they bear more in common with your fae, from the old tales." Violet shifted her parasol to her other hand. "I haven't seen many of them around in my time here, I should add."

Minerva waved a hand vaguely. "The... power is receding. The magic is not as strong as it used to be. I still understand the theory, but unless I am provided with an alternate source..."

"Oh, I don't mean here in England, Miss Margatroid. The work here has already been done. Begun in Wiltshire in times long past, and there may be a little tremor somewhere around Essex soon... the basic principle is the same. Your churches may be many things, but they are of a mind, they can be... efficient." Violet sighed. "The issue is, and has always been, power and control. I need your magic, Miss Margatroid. Not your puppet-shows in little country villages, that would think nothing of holding their own witch trials if they knew what you are truly capable of."

"They are not so superstitious," Minerva protested, even as uncertainty coloured her words.

"Oh, no doubt. This is, after all, the age of enlightenment, and no longer do housewives have to put milk out for the piskies, or children walk home with salt in one pocket and bread in the other. We dare go a-hunting, for there is no more fear of little men. Wouldn't you want the same for those still threatened by their... superstitions?"

Minerva looked away, towards the village.

"You needn't make your decision immediately, of course." Violet extracted a large package from... somewhere... and handed it to Minerva. Inside were travel documents, banknotes in various denominations and currencies, and a few books. "Provided you do intend to aid me, you will find the necessary travel arrangements in that package, and more than enough petty cash for the majority of any foreseeable needs. The ship leaves Southampton at the end of next month, so you have until then to decide."

"Ship?" Minerva gently replaced the items back into the package. "Where is this... monster infestation?"

"Oh? I must have forgotten to mention it; my apologies. The community of humans you will have to save is in a rural area of Japan."

"Japan?!"

"Just so," Violet said calmly. "I would advise you to make your arrangements quickly, Miss Margatroid. If, of course, you agree to my proposal; otherwise, you may keep the money and items in that package as a souvenir." The fan hid Violet's mouth. "Of what may have been."

"You expect me to venture halfway across the globe to a land I have never seen, in a language I do not speak, and solve your little problem?"

"You will not be alone," Violet said, turning away. "Someone will be waiting for you at Edo... I beg your pardon, I meant Tokyo. From there... we shall see. The decision, Miss Margatroid, is yours and yours alone." Stepping easily and lightly, Violet started making her way back to the village.

The year was 1884, under the reign of Queen Victoria. The smell of spring filled the country air. Minerva closed her eyes, listening to the distant sounds of the village fair and festival, listening to the voices raised in celebration and haggling, listening to the streams and brooks flowing towards the river, listening to the calls of the creatures of the forest welcoming the end of winter.

Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen.

"I need to get out of here," she muttered.

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2011, 04:21:28 pm »
Well, well, well.  This is interesting.  You've got a strong style here, and a unique starting point.  There are one or two spots where your flow was shakey, but this is an impressive work.  I'm looking forward to more.

(Also, clever referencing there in the middle.  Obvious, but not distracting.)

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #2 on: May 01, 2011, 06:15:26 pm »
I love you please go on :o

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #3 on: May 01, 2011, 10:14:33 pm »
Hmm ...

.... yes.
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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #4 on: May 02, 2011, 02:51:05 pm »
The months travelling from England to Japan passed relatively uneventfully, allowing Minerva more than enough time to indulge in her fondness for trashy literature no well-bred young woman would admit to reading. Minerva might have been effectively barred from the family fortune and titles, but her connections with the various mystical circles and clubs hidden among the secret societies of the world allowed her to live comfortably well-off. This irregular income was frequently supplemented by impressionable new members with more disposable wealth than talent, awed by her reputation and what few conjurations she could still manage in a world gradually losing its magic.

Violet had been right; Minerva had a knack for efficient power usage in her spells. It certainly helped that her spell architecture allowed for some especially flashy displays, useful for showing off to anyone requiring proof of ability.

From Southampton, she took a ship to Suez, and from there to Bombay. Given a choice of emulating Phileas Fogg's railway trip across India to Calcutta, Minerva instead chose more sea travel, and by the time the ship sailed down the Straits of Malacca into Singapore, Minerva had managed to become passably fluent in Japanese, thanks to the textbooks enclosed within Violet's package. The real test would come when she finally arrived in Japan, but Minerva had always been confident in her ability to pick up new languages easily. Practicing conversation with the puppets she had brought with her helped significantly; if any of the crew found it strange that their mysterious English passenger spent most of her time in her cabin talking to herself in foreign tongues, they gave no sign.

Minerva's luggage had been kept intentionally light, compared to most of her travels: the bulk of it was her performing equipment, with her stage costume and a few essential puppet dolls. A repair kit had been packed in as part of the set, and Minerva had bought some more materials for puppet-making along the journey, which she had resorted to when she quickly finished her limited collection of books.

And, of course, she spent the calmer parts of the voyage working on her book. Her collection of notes expanded tremendously, and Minerva had taken to reusing the pieces of paper in order to save space in her luggage. It wasn't as though anyone else would read them, anyway; the final, finished product went into the book. Minerva had not named it yet; "Margatroid's Guide To Magic And Magical Theory" seemed pretentious, especially since the book would essentially be self-published. Circulation would be limited, at best, among the few trusted and true practitioners of the magical arts Minerva knew personally.

It was of little consequence. A suitable title would probably come to her in time.

By her reckoning, it was probably around summer when she left Singapore, although being in the tropics made it intolerable both indoors and out. Minerva spent most of her time out on the deck instead of her cabin, practicing her puppetry, and regularly gaining an appreciative audience.

Hong Kong saw her sell off most of the books she had finished reading, in exchange for more stationery for her research and note-taking. Shanghai was spent ashore, under the hospitality of an American teacher living in the International Settlement, who happened to be a secret dabbler in the arcane arts. Minerva found him enjoyable company, if limited in skill, and she lingered perhaps too long in his home.

"Japan?" he said incredulously when she told him of her journey. "Now why would you ever want to go there? Some job you need to take care of?"

"In a manner of speaking," Minerva replied cautiously.

The teacher shook his head. "You don't want to go to Japan," he said. "They don't know how to treat people right. The whole mess with what's his name, Richardson... one of yours, wasn't he? Bad business all around." He took a sip of lemonade. "Still, it's been twenty years. One would hope they've learned a thing or two since then."

It was on the final leg of the journey that the trouble happened.

The first sign Minerva had of anything amiss was the heightened concern of the crew, which had spread to the other passengers. Theories and wild guesses on the nature of the unease were the topic of conversations during mealtimes.

"It can't be anything dangerous," one of the passengers said. Minerva suspected him of being an officer somewhere, educated in Britain, but showing the faintest hint of something else in his accent. Prussian, Minerva decided. Here on holiday, or perhaps an opportunity to see the world as part of his military education. "They'd be panicking a lot more if it were."

"You don't think we are going to sink, are we?" asked a lady in hushed tones. Minerva didn't like her. She was almost flamboyantly French, travelling with her husband, who had taken to his cabin and stayed there, claiming seasickness. Minerva entertained the brief notion that they were actually spies, acting like the giddy couple to throw off suspicion. It would certainly have made them more tolerable.

"Of course not. That'd be happening a damned sight faster than whatever's gotten them spooked." Big, bluff, American businessman; Minerva guessed Texan. His purpose in going to Japan was clear enough, at least.

"Perhaps another incident regarding foreign ships in Japanese waters?" Minerva suggested. "The crew could have heard something on the radio that hadn't made it on the regular news yet."

The others at the table gave this due consideration.

"Has anyone asked the captain?" the lady said archly.

"Tried," the businessman replied promptly. "He just gave some assurances that it's nothing to be concerned about. I don't know about you, but that sort of thing just makes me even more nervous."

"I did see the crew counting heads yesterday," the officer mused. "And the cook seemed terribly distraught. Maybe we've got a stowaway."

"A stowaway!" The lady could have a respectable career in theatre, Minerva decided, as long as she took the roles involving screeching, sighing, and fainting dead away in shock. "Are we in danger? Could this stowaway be violent?"

"I am certain violence will not come to pass," the officer said, raising an exasperated eyebrow at Minerva. "We'll be arriving at Yokohama the day after tomorrow, in any case. The situation will likely be resolved by then."

-----

In fact, it was mostly resolved just before dinner the next day.

Minerva heard the shouting first, along with the unmistakeable voices of her fellow passengers: the businessman attempting to take charge by means of raising his voice in successive tiers, and the lady's melodramatic wailing, accompanied by an unfamiliar voice Minerva took to be her husband barking in rapidfire French.

She laid down the stage costume she had been modifying, put her sewing kit back into the satchel, and crossed over to the door, just in time to hear a curious scratching noise from the lock. A few seconds later, there was a spanging noise as the lock was defeated, and the door opened to admit a small ragged blur.

Clearly the enterprising lockpicker had not expected to end up where she did, freezing in shock upon seeing the room occupied. Minerva took in a few details as she quickly slammed the door back shut, preventing escape: the child looked barely eight, although Minerva could have guessed a stunted ten. Blonde hair, as dirty as the rest of her, and dressed in whatever scraps of clothing she had been able to scavenge, in true street urchin style.

And as Minerva's hand ran over the lock, she felt the faintest traces of...

Someone else was rapping on the door, conveying a precise sense of polite urgency. Acting on impulse, Minerva quickly bundled the surprised stowaway into a corner, placed a finger on her lips to suppress the alarmed squeak, and tossed the voluminous costume across the child.

"Madam? Are you all right?"

The officer stood neatly outside Minerva's cabin at parade attention. Minerva resisted the urge to see if the stowaway had followed her instructions to hide. "I heard a commotion outside," she said. "What is this fuss about? Is something the matter?"

"We've cornered the stowaway to this area of the ship." The officer hesitated. "Or, I should say, the crew claims to have cornered the stowaway to this area of the ship. I have yet to see any sign of the culprit myself. Have you?"

Minerva held his gaze steadily. "I haven't seen anything out of the ordinary, I'm afraid."

The officer's eyes flickered to the side, coinciding with a faint rustle of fabric from somewhere behind Minerva. She shifted position, trying to block his view of the cabin interior.

A shadow of a frown crossed the officer's face. "Are you certain you haven't seen anything, madam? The... little rascal might be more mischievous than expected."

Little rascal, Minerva noted. And he claimed he hadn't seen the stowaway before. "I am. Will that be all?"

"I... suppose so." The officer bowed. "My apologies for disturbing you, madam. Oh, there is one more thing." This time, the glance towards the cabin interior had been deliberate. "Will you be joining us at the table tonight, madam?"

"Actually, I think I'll be having my meals in my room from now on," Minerva said. "All this... excitement. It's a little trying on the nerves. Speaking of which, I'm surprised our French friend is up and about."

"Yes," the officer agreed, the corner of his lips quirking up. "There is more to him that it seems. There is, perhaps, more to everyone than it seems. I shall inform the others. Good day, madam." He clicked his heels together.

Minerva closed the door with a sigh of relief. The lock worked perfectly, as though it had never been picked.

The little girl stood in the corner where she had hidden, clutching the dress in her hands. She started in surprise when Minerva caught her staring, and jerked her gaze away.

"It's all right now," Minerva said. She held out a hand, not quite sure of how to deal with small children in a manner that did not involve a puppet show.

After a brief hesitation, the child took her hand, and Minerva felt the tingle of power once again.

"You have a strong talent," she said, kneeling down to brush the girl's hair away from her eyes. "But I'm not sure how you came by it. Raw talent, perhaps, untrained... but the way you opened the lock so quickly means you've done this sort of trick before. Or are you just naturally nimble?" She chuckled, aware of the edge of desperation in that sound. "Maybe I should check my belongings to make sure they're all still there."

The girl stared at her.

"Can you understand me?"

A prompt nod.

"Can you speak? Just say something. Anything at all."

The girl's stare grew quizzical, but she remained silent.

"But you made a noise just now, so you're not completely dumb. Unless it's some form of aphasia." Minerva sighed. "Where did you come from, child? What are you doing on this ship? And am I making a mistake by taking you in?" She stood, the girl's hand still in hers. "Let's get you cleaned up first. I'm afraid the plumbing on this ship is a little basic, but running water is all we need."

Further mysteries were soon revealed: despite the girl's condition on first sight, she did not show any signs of protracted malnutrition. And what dirt she had seemed more consistent with hiding away in the nooks and crannies of a steamship than a lifetime on the run.

The girl did not resist Minerva's ministrations, apparently trusting her implicitly for some reason. There was a brief repeat of the hastily-improvised concealment when a crewmate delivered Minerva's meal, but there were no additional incidents.

"What shall I do with you?" Minerva wondered, as she watched the girl wolf down the meal. Having no clothes in the child's size, Minerva had dressed her in a spare blouse and a shawl for now. "I don't suppose you have any family?"

The girl glanced up, and shook her head once, before returning to her food.

"Poor thing. I can't turn you over to the captain, obviously. And someone with your power is... well, I'd rather not leave you with whatever authorities there are in Japan. I doubt they care much for abandoned foreign children. But I can't send you anywhere else alone, and I don't have enough money on hand for a return trip to England like this... what's your name, by the way?"

The query was ignored in favour of the food. The girl had cleaned up most of the meal, and was licking her fingers clean.

"Stop that. I see table manners is something else I'll have to teach you." Minerva reached out with the napkin to wipe the girl's mouth. "My name is Minerva Margatroid. You may call me Miss Margatroid, or Miss, or... or anything at all, come to think of it. As long as you call me something, rather than remain as speechless as you are."

The girl stared uncomprehendingly.

Struck by inspiration, Minerva dragged her luggage over to herself. "Look, over here." She pointed at the embossed nameplate. "Minerva Margatroid. Min-er-va, Mar-ga-troid. Oh, never mind. I don't even know if-"

The girl extended a finger, running it over the letters. "Mah, Margah. Mah gah tuh-roid." Her voice was quiet and light. "Margatroid."

Minerva could not resist the smile that spread across her face. "So you can read. And speak." Without thinking, she brought the girl in for a hug. "My dear little child."

The girl made a few muffled noises of surprise at this sudden show of affection, before yawning widely. She was missing a few teeth, Minerva noticed; the perils of growing up.

"Oh, that's right. You must be tired, after today." Running around the ship, hiding from the crew and passengers, stealing what food she could, and finally ending up in the wrong room... or maybe it was the right room after all.

After she tucked the girl into bed, Minerva retrieved her sewing kit, and checked the oil lamp in the cabin. The extra light did not seem to bother the sleeping child, but Minerva was not looking forward to having to work with needle and thread in these conditions. In addition, she was running out of spare clothes; she would have to visit a dressmaker when she arrived in Japan, for yet another drain on her dwindling funds.

But that was only a temporary situation. She'd finish what Violet Hearn had brought her to Japan to do, and improve her solvency at the nearest banking institution affiliated with the Crown. The sun never set on the Empire, after all; she'd find her way back to England somehow, her new ward in tow. Maybe she could prevail on her contacts among the magical community for advice, and hand the child over to someone she trusted, leaving the girl's instruction and protection in far more capable hands.

Or...

No, it was still too soon to think about that, and there were too many obstacles to overcome. And yet, Minerva glanced at her unfinished book of magic, the idea taking root with insidious temptation. After all, it would not take all that long to rewrite some of the more complex portions with an apprentice in mind.

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #5 on: May 02, 2011, 03:04:09 pm »
Holy shit I just figured it out

Seriously, spoiler tagged for the actual purpose of spoiler tags
Minerva (Mi) Margatroid (ma)

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #6 on: May 02, 2011, 10:49:29 pm »
Well, we won't know for sure. Then again it's always Mima until proven not Mima so it might actually be possible.  :D

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #7 on: May 03, 2011, 01:26:46 am »
Hm...  I'm actually a little more curious about little "Alice" there.  I can sense some subtle hints passed about there that I missed first reading.

Also I'm curious as if 1884 was chosen for a specific reason.*  I await the answers eagerly.

Edit: In addition to the obvious of course.
« Last Edit: May 03, 2011, 01:51:08 am by Iced Fairy »
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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #8 on: May 03, 2011, 06:10:15 am »
I think it's fairly obvious that she's going to be involved in putting up the Hakurei Border. That's about 120 years before PoFV takes place, isn't it ...?
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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #9 on: May 03, 2011, 07:18:03 am »
Minerva's descent from the steamship in full performance costume had captured the attention of a sizeable number of bystanders. In deference to not making more of a scene than was unavoidable, she had left off the hat.

The officer was the first to recover. "Madam, had I known you possessed such a magnificent bearing and regal dress, I would have been more persistent in requesting your presence at our dinners."

Minerva's smile was worthy of the stage. "Thank you, kind sir. Alas, my choice of dress today is the result of necessity rather than choice; due to certain conditions, I did not have anything more suitable to wear on hand."

To his credit, the officer kept his gaze steadily forward. "If I may escort you, madam? The footing around here may be treacherous. Please, I insist."

He was the perfect gentleman, patiently taking Minerva's pace, until they were both safely on the soil of Yokohama. Minerva returned his bow with a nod of thanks; curtseying was out of the question.

The businessman wore a wide grin of appreciation. "Theatre, eh? Wish I could see it. Are you performing anywhere around here?"

Minerva affected an expression of regret. "I'm afraid I have arrangements elsewhere. Your interest in the performing arts is noted and appreciated, however."

Thankfully, the French couple were nowhere to be seen. Minerva kept her smile through the rest of the polite pleasantries, before excusing herself and gliding slowly towards the closest secluded area, near some crates.

"You can come out now," she murmured.

The little girl had a few false starts, before she managed to make her way out of the large billowing skirts of Minerva's costume. She blinked in the sunlight, gawking at the scenery.

Minerva looked critically at the simple improvised dress the girl wore. "You'll need something more professional made," she said. "Or at least more material to work with. Still, I hardly think you'll attract too much attention." On a whim, she undid the ribbon at her neck, and removed her capelet, placing it around the girl's shoulders instead. "There. Now you look a little more presentable."

The first order of business was to find a hotel to stay in for a few days, while she reoriented herself. The stage costume was also not quite suited for this subtropical climate, and Minerva was looking forward to changing into something more practical at the nearest reputable-looking hotel. This was easy enough to achieve, although the conspiracy to keep Minerva in Japan gained a new wrinkle.

"We speak English, Dutch, and, uh, doitsu... German? German!" the clerk behind the reception counter said proudly, in thickly accented English. He was a fairly young man, clearly enthusiastic about his job, but old enough to have an air of competent experience. He had goggled at Minerva's costume for a moment, before falling back on cheerful professionalism. "May we have your name, please?"

"Minerva Margatroid, and ward." At the clerk's desperately blank look, Minerva appropriated a nearby pad of telegram notepaper, and printed out her name in neat block letters.

"Minerva Margatroid..." the clerk read slowly. "Ah! Miss Margatroid! We have been expecting you."

"Oh?"

"Yes, a Miss Violet Hearn has paid for your accommodations for... five days." The clerk consulted a memo written in Japanese. "With a provision for newspapers, meals, and telegraph services. We have a wide variety of amenities available for the discerning traveller! Please feel free to make use of our services." The clerk began to bow, but hesitated midway. "Ah... is this your first time in Yokohama, Miss Margatroid?"

Minerva kept a firm grip on the little girl's hand, to prevent her from wandering off in boredom. "It is."

"Then please take note of the, um... advisability of staying within the Kannai," the clerk said seriously. "It will not be good if you venture too far without an escort, especially for a woman."

"Kannai?"

"Yes, Kannai."

After she had settled into her room, Minerva returned to the hotel lobby to visit the money-changer, where she converted her remaining currency to the silver-backed yen. The bewildering array of different banknotes made Minerva suspect that she had been cheated outrageously, somehow, but there was no helping it; at least the coinage seemed sound. She left the little girl in the hotel room, with strict instructions to stay there until Minerva returned. The little girl seemed discontent with this arrangement, until Minerva unpacked a few of her puppets for the girl to play with.

Minerva's next purchases were a guidebook to the local area, written specifically for the international community in Japan, as well as a pocket dictionary.

The mysterious Kannai turned out to be the unofficial name of the foreign settlement area of Yokohama, surrounded by a system of canals and waterways that Minerva whimsically interpreted as a moat for a besieged castle. Samurai were not allowed into the area, and foreigners were usually not allowed outside, in order to prevent any further unfortunate misunderstandings that might result in messy deaths and retaliatory naval bombardments. Kannai was, literally, inside the barrier, keeping the foreigners in, and the rest of Japan out.

It was in a thoughtful mood that Minerva returned to her hotel room, laden with the results from her shopping trip into the city. The little girl was seated on the floor, playing with the puppets with far more dexterity and skill than Minerva had ever possessed, making little murmurs of delight as she acted out scenes from the fantasy story in her mind.

"You're full of surprises, aren't you?" Minerva said cheerfully, as she dumped the armload onto her bed. The girl glanced up at Minerva's arrival, before focusing her interest back on the puppets. "Do come here, when you have a moment."

With obvious reluctance, the girl abandoned the puppets to stand dutifully in front of Minerva. In deference to the girl's impatient fidgeting, Minerva made her measurements as quickly as she could, jotting down notes as she read off the measuring tape. The girl scampered back to the puppets after she was done, to resume the interrupted performance.

The first dress was finished by that evening, since Minerva had the advantage of being able to alter one of her existing blouses for the base white top, adding a skirt and suspenders in blue. A bow at the neck, and a ribbon in her hair, and the little girl looked as perfect an English child as could be. This, Minerva decided, could do for now; a spare set of the same was next, and the more complex designs could be completed at leisure. A pinafore, possibly, or a longer blue dress with a white capelet, as an assistant during Minerva's shows. A hint of red in the ribbon... her shoes would have to be changed often, of course, since she was a growing girl...

A noise of frustration, as the strings of the puppets were tangled up. Minerva hurried over to the girl's side to help. "It's all right, child. These things happen, no matter how careful you are. There's a better way to do it, but..."

But what? If Minerva was going to take care of the girl, shouldn't she start her instruction as soon as she was able?

"Leave that be for now, dear. I have something to show you." It was nothing more than a parlour trick, in Minerva's opinion, but it helped her with her concentration and control. The little doll, worn with age but lovingly kept with care, danced a simple waltz across the bed, as the child's eyes widened in astonishment. "There are still strings controlling the doll, but you can't see them. They're magic strings, and they won't get tangled. It's just one of the things magic can do, if you spend the time to learn. Would you like to?"

Wordlessly, the child nodded.

Minerva released control of the doll, which flopped lifelessly onto the bed. She put her hands on the girl's shoulders, looking her in the eye. "Now, I want you to promise me something, if you want me to teach you. First of all, I want you to do exactly as I tell you. No arguments, no disobedience, and especially no experimenting on your own. The road to magic is not a quick or easy one, and with your talent, the temptations will be that much stronger. I need you to trust me to know what's best, even if you don't agree. Is that clear?"

The girl's face grew solemn, as she considered this. Minerva was fairly certain that most eight-year olds would not have the emotional maturity to fully grasp the implications behind the terms of apprenticeship, which made the girl's thoughfulness both heartening and peculiar. Another mystery to add to the growing pool.

After a long moment, the girl nodded firmly.

"Good. The next lesson... can wait until tomorrow." Minerva watched the girl carefully, and was faintly amused to see the girl try to suppress her clear disappointment. Time would tell whether the girl would be able to keep that promise in mind, but it was a good start. "For now, shall we have some supper?"

-----

On the fourth day, they had a visitor.

Minerva had spent her time divided between teaching the girl the basics of magical theory, continuing her work on her book, and trying to arrange train tickets to Tokyo, in that order of success. The girl had picked up certain aspects gratifyingly swiftly, particularly those involving actual practical uses of arcanology. Pure theory, however, visibly bored her, and while Minerva had been able to coax the girl to recite her lessons aloud, these quickly became exercises in frustration for both teacher and student.

Someone had taught the girl how to read and write in English before, as well as simple arithmetic. Other languages included a rudimentary level of French, German, one of the non-Mandarin Chinese dialects, and Latin; Minerva suspected the first two to be a clue to her past, while the Chinese could have been picked up when the girl was in Shanghai. She seemed to have a hint of something Continental in her speech, although by now it had been corrupted by Minerva's essential Englishness. History and geography were completely unfamiliar to the girl, and Minerva abandoned them for much later, after she had explored the depths of the girl's ignorance. Geometry came naturally, and provided the bulk of their non-magical lessons.

In contrast, all attempts at booking passage to Tokyo were met with bureaucratic incomprehension, and probably a fair amount of linguistic incomprehension as well. Minerva was confident in her Japanese by now, which made the puzzled stares of officials even more infuriating. She had to make a conscious effort not to let her annoyance spill over into her lessons, and the girl bore the occasional lapse with admirable stoicism.

The concierge's message arrived in the middle of a difficult lesson on Latin. Minerva suspected the grammar to be something they would have to work on for a very long time, but due to many mystical tomes being written in that language after the influence of the Church, knowledge of Archaic and Classical Latin was indispensible. With ill-disguised relief, Minerva received the message informing her that a certain Japanese lady was waiting for her at the lobby. Judging from the concierge's reaction, this Japanese lady must be from a noble house, or whatever the local equivalent was.

As Minerva prepared to leave, however, the girl clutched at her skirt, looking questioningly at her.

"Oh, very well," Minerva decided. "It's not as if we're making much progress here."

The woman in the lobby was barely out of her teens, but held herself with a bearing that made her seem far older. She wore a light pink kimono with blue and purple butterfly patterns, and held a bamboo umbrella in one hand. A floral hair accessory decorated her black hair, trimmed in a bob cut, and complementing her pale, almost doll-like complexion.

She rose as Minerva approached, and bowed deeply. The sight of the little girl prompted a noticeable double-take.

"Good afternoon," Minerva said politely in Japanese. "To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

The visitor looked curiously at Minerva. "Where did you learn your Japanese?" she asked, in near-flawless English. Her voice was soft, but had a quality that would have made it clearly audible in any circumstance. This was a lady who was used to having her orders obeyed, and thus had no need to raise her voice.

"I've taught myself," Minerva said, taken aback by the visitor's forwardness. From what she knew of Japanese culture, this was uncommonly bold.

"I see. You sound like a textbook." The visitor smiled quickly, presumably to cover up her lapse in manners; Minerva was not entirely certain this contrition was genuine. "I am Hieda no Aya, of the Hieda family. We have been... informed of your arrival, Miss Margatroid."

Minerva could sense the pattern as easily as anyone else. "By a certain Violet Hearn?"

Aya blinked in puzzlement. Had that been a faulty guess? "No, I was told by... well, it does not matter, but I certainly suspect the involvement of youkai." The word was unfamiliar to Minerva, and Aya must have caught the confusion on her face. "The term 'youkai' is like your English... demon, or spirit, or monster. And yet not always evil, or associated with theological... never mind. It would take too much time to explain here."

Monsters, Minerva remembered. Saving humans from monsters... "And? What brings you here, Miss... Hieda? Or is it Miss Aya?"

"Just Aya is fine," Aya said. Minerva tried not to imagine an implied "for you stupid and ill-mannered foreigners". "I came as soon as I heard you had arrived in Japan. Luckily, I was on business in Tokyo, and it did not take me long. If it would be all right, I would like to offer myself as a guide and escort to our destination. I understand you have been encountering difficulties in securing transportation outside Yokohama?"

Whoever this Hieda no Aya was, her information network was extensive. "I assume you will be able to assist me in that regard?"

"Undoubtedly. You must understand that foreign elements are treated with... suspicion, here in Japan. No, Miss Margatroid, I said you must understand, and what you have come across so far is nothing compared to what you have yet to see. Hopefully my presence, and the name of my family, will be able to bypass most of that." Aya shook her head. "We are not going to Tokyo. It is not necessary at this stage, as we can travel directly to our destination."

Minerva made a noncommittal grunt. "How long will that take?"

"Two to three days by rail, depending on our luck. From there, another three days in a carriage." Aya looked askance at the little girl hiding behind Minerva's skirt. "I confess I did not expect a child to be present."

Minerva moved protectively to shield the girl. "She won't be any trouble, I assure you. And I'm afraid that if I am to go, she is to accompany me. That is not a negotiable condition, Miss Aya. She is my ward."

Aya inclined her head. "Very well. We shall begin our departure at dawn tomorrow, Miss Margatroid. I will return then. The porters will handle any luggage, for you and your... ward."

"We'll be expecting you." A thought struck Minerva. "One more thing, if I may. Where exactly is this place that is overrun by monsters... by youkai?"

Aya started to give a name, but reconsidered. "The official name given by the government will not be of much help, I'm afraid; this era has not yet settled, politically. It is a valley, surrounded by mountains and forests, haunted by myths and illusions. The locals call it Gensokyo."

Dizzy H. "Muffin" Muffin

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #10 on: May 04, 2011, 03:24:33 am »
Doncha just love knowing half the story, when the characters themselves don't, and the emphasis of the story is on them figuring it out? :3
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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #11 on: May 04, 2011, 04:11:02 am »
I am Blackraptor and I fully approve and endorse this product.

Sees the name of the author...

Capitalism Ho~!

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #12 on: May 08, 2011, 10:37:59 am »
Aya broached the subject as soon as they were settled comfortably on the train. "Why does the child not have a name?"

The child in question glanced warily at Aya, apparently mistrustful of the disapproving gaze Aya had bestowed on her. She had bounded to their seats in the train carriage with excited glee, as young children often did when on a trip with their family. Minerva wondered if their little party seemed like a peculiar example of a family; the girl looked nothing like Minerva, and Aya was clearly of a different race, so there were undoubtedly all sorts of speculations and theories running busily through the minds of everyone they passed.

Besides, Minerva flattered herself into thinking that she surely did not look so old to have a child of that age, even if her actual age did make it quite possible. A governess, then, bringing the daughter of a well-to-do family on a tour of the exotic East. Circumstances had removed the parents from the immediate picture, to return only when the narrative deemed it convenient, but an elegant Japanese lady friend had volunteered to play the tour guide...

"I hadn't really thought about the matter," Minerva admitted. "She seems to respond well enough when I call her, but you are correct. I haven't been able to decide on a name that we can all agree on, however... what do you think, dear?"

The girl resumed her sightseeing of the scenery outside the train window.

Minerva gave Aya a helpless shrug, which Aya received without comment or reaction. Minerva returned to the books and papers spread over her lap, managing to find the map she sought after a few moments.

The train journey would lead them through a roundabout route to their next transit point, where vigorous activity behind the stage curtain organized by the Hieda family and retainers would provide them with horses, carriage, and a driver to lead them. From consultations between the maps and the guidebook, the length of the journey to Gensokyo was not so much due to distance as poor travelling conditions. Their destination was not even listed, presumably because any foreigner who had an interest in the area must have had a very good reason to go there, and thus already provided themselves with knowledge, native guides, and more than a few well-maintained firearms.

Minerva suppressed the impulse to scrawl in "Here Be Dragons" on the map. There was a non-trivial possibility that this may very well be the case.

"What book is that?" Aya asked curiously. Minerva followed her gaze to the hardbound book which had fallen unheeded by her side, when she had upended the satchel it had been in for the contents, instead of rummaging fruitlessly in the dark.

"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," she replied, picking up the book and holding it out for Aya's inspection. "With the Tenniel illustrations. It's a little childish of me, I suppose, but it has a certain charm, even at my age."

Aya's brow furrowed, as she tried to read the English text. "... 'and what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?'" She looked up in surprise at a movement; the girl had plopped back into her seat, and was leaning forward intently. "What is it?"

"She may be interested in the book," Minerva guessed. "Haven't you read it before, dear, when you looked through my luggage? No, it looks like you haven't..."

Aya relinquished the book to the girl with a thoughtful expression. "What sort of place is this Wonderland?"

"A nonsensical one," Minerva replied promptly. "Which was the point of the story, all told. A place where common sense does not apply, and the fantastic is perfectly normal. Strange beings and people, all with their own quirks and tales, holding up a mirror to the nonsense of our own world."

"In other words, a land of fantasy," Aya said.

"That's correct."

"Like the place we are going to."

Minerva stopped short. "I... had not thought about it that way. But no, none of the people of Wonderland Alice meets are monsters. Peculiar, certainly, but apart from a few, they are largely benign. From what you've told me, I hardly think this Gensokyo is some sort of Wonderland." More like an outskirt of a Christian Hell.

Aya's faint smile was not quite polite enough to hide her smug satisfaction at a conversational point scored. "They may have more in common than it seems, Miss Margatroid. Especially when we have a little girl stumbling into-"

The girl looked up from her book. "Alice," she said.

Minerva looked at her, startled. "What did you say, dear?"

"Alice," the girl repeated firmly. From her progress through the book on her lap, she was having some difficulty with the words, but she was dutifully struggling ahead anyway.

"She seems to like the name," Aya said, amused.

The girl nodded eagerly, but hesitated, looking uncertainly at Minerva.

Minerva smiled. "If that's what you wish, then I certainly have no objections. You have my blessings in your choice of name, my little Alice."

Christened with her new moniker, the girl grinned widely as she swung her legs from her seat. Returning to the book, however, her cheer faded in the face of the effort expended in trying to read the book, her mouth silently forming the shapes of the words as her finger slowly traced across the page.

Minerva reached over to pull the child into her arms. "Allow me." Alice made a small sound of surprise, but did not resist, settling easily onto Minerva's lap. "Where have you gotten to... all right. 'In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again...'"

-----

The carriage that would take them to Gensokyo seemed to have been bought second-hand, and taken out of deep storage only very recently. It appeared sturdy enough, although the comfort level of the ride, especially over the rough roads leading to Gensokyo, may have been less than ideal.

The driver was a solidly-built man of middle age, dressed in a faded Western-style suit. From his bearing, Minerva suspected he had far more responsibilities than merely ferrying their party from one place to another. A butler? One of Aya's personal servants?

"Aya-dono," he greeted Aya in Japanese, bowing deeply. Minerva turned to face him, away from watching the various porters piling the luggage onto the roof of the carriage. "Please accept my humble services. And, er..."

"This is Margatroid-san, and Alice." Aya gestured genteelly at the two in introduction. "I apologize once more for asking you to do this for me, Kamishirasawa-san."

"Not at all," Kamishirasawa replied. "The Hieda family has always been a great help to us. This is the least we could do to repay your kindness."

Greetings accomplished, Aya nodded pleasantly to Minerva. "Mr. Kamishirasawa is an old friend," she said in English, "as well as a respected member of the community in Gensokyo." In other words, despite his current job, Minerva was not to think of him as a mere servant.

... or so Minerva assumed. Was Aya hinting at Kamishirasawa's status as Someone To Know, if she wanted to get anything done in this Gensokyo? Or was he Someone Not To Be Crossed? The way people here seemed to be able to convey a wealth of meanings from what they chose to say or not say, even without changing their tone, was something she had yet to become accustomed to, compared to the social maneuverings in the drawing-rooms of the English gentry. In any event, she curtseyed politely; after a moment, Alice did so as well, taking her cue from her guardian.

"It is a pleasure to meet you, Kamishirasawa-san," Minerva said in Japanese. "I hope I will be able to provide some small amount of assistance towards the problem plaguing your village." Aya had coached Minerva during the train journey on speaking a less obviously textbook-learned form of Japanese, and it was only much later that Minerva would realize how well the instruction had been given, based on the rapid improvement of her speech. Aya might have been unthinkingly arrogant and casually disdainful of all foreigners, but she was a superb teacher.

Of course, Alice seemed to pick up the language much faster than Minerva did, and certainly more easily than any of their lessons prior. Minerva could swallow enough of her ego to realize that she had nothing resembling Aya's skill in teaching others. Maybe she could leave Alice in Aya's care, at least for the immediate future.

Kamishirasawa did not seem to notice anything odd about Minerva's speech or mannerisms, although his eyes flickered dubiously towards Alice. "If there is nothing else," he said, opening the carriage doors, "we must begin our trip as soon as we can. Please make yourselves comfortable inside, for it is a long way to our destination."

Minerva had lost track of where they were at the moment, although from her best reckoning they were somewhere in Yamanashi Prefecture, heading vaguely north to northwest. What signs she could spot taxed her knowledge of written Japanese beyond its limits, but queries to Aya led only to a dismissive shake of her head.

"More importantly," Aya said, still in Japanese, "you should try to learn as much about Gensokyo as you can, so you won't repeat the mistakes of the other youkai hunters." She held a book, bound in the Oriental style with silk stitching, in her hand. "It was a stroke of luck that my business in Tokyo was regarding this, and happen to have a copy at hand. I'll help you with the harder words," she added dryly.

The book was filled with columns of neatly-printed Japanese text, which Minerva recognized to be descriptions of assorted mythical creatures. Alice, having glanced curiously at the book in Minerva's hands, lost interest as soon as she found it was devoid of any pictures, and spent the rest of her time alternating between the view outside the window, and cooing at the doll she was playing with. The bumpy ride in the carriage did not help with comprehension of the unfamiliar words, but after a few difficulties with the cardinality of the text direction, Minerva realized that this was a guide of sorts to dealing with the youkai around Gensokyo.

"This is the latest edition of the Gensokyo Chronicles," Aya said. "It is a... responsibility laid on the Hieda family, in order to help the populace know the strengths and weaknesses of youkai. Characteristics, countermeasures, and the best way to survive should a confrontation be inevitable. It is my hope that every person in Gensokyo will be able to own one of these encyclopedias. It is not an exaggeration to say that lives may depend upon it."

Minerva closed the book. "While the sentiment is commendable, no doubt you've already considered the problem of the average literacy level in a small, rural village. The circles and societies I am acquainted with in Europe had the same issue, when it came to informing the public of the habits of the fae."

Aya nodded. "Gensokyo is not as backwards as you imagine, but yes, some of the outlying farms do not have the time to learn how to read, or rather read well enough to make a difference, should they encounter a youkai. Kamishirasawa-san has been instrumental in raising the literacy level of the people, but his efforts are only as effective as the willingness of others to learn. He has been thinking of opening a school."

"Are there none in Gensokyo?"

"None of the sort he envisions, certainly. A few classes held irregularly, for the children of the village, but there is always more that can be done. For my part, I have taken some liberties with the organization of information, using some of your Western styles for the table of contents and the indexing. Improvements can certainly be made, however. Perhaps next time I will be able to implement them." Aya indicated Alice with a tilt of her head. "After all, if I could maintain the interest of a child such as her, she would be more inclined to read the rest of the book, and make use of the knowledge within. Your own story of Wonderland has a valid point: what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?"

Minerva digested this. "Next time?"

Aya's smile was beatific. "The ninth edition of the Gensokyo Chronicles, to be written a hundred and twenty years or so hence. Needless to say, everything would have to be rewritten. Who knows what the world will look like? This is but the seventeenth year of the Meiji, or what your calendar calls 1884, in the years of your Christian God. In a hundred and twenty years, who will be sitting on the Imperial Throne? Or will we have adopted your Western calendar, the same way we have adopted everything else?"

Minerva let out a sigh of frustration. "There is no point in haranguing me about this, Aya-san. Besides, if you say you'll be writing the next edition of the Gensokyo Chronicles, then you think you will be around to see the next hundred and twenty years."

"Margatroid-san, I do not think I will live to see the end of the decade."

The rest of the day's journey passed in silence.

Kips McKipzerson

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #13 on: May 08, 2011, 03:39:49 pm »
Nice story thusfar. So Minerva finally gave Alice her name, and Kamishoasfijhak or whatever the hell his name was is now known. Now, What will be Minerva's great downfall is the real question here. Will she die fighting off hundreds of youkai, or die from something stupid like a poison shroom? And didnt Aya make the deal with the Enma's after her death? Other then that, It's a pretty damned good story.

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #14 on: May 08, 2011, 04:54:14 pm »
And so Alice gets her name.  Makes a certain sort of sense.

Speaking of names, I wonder if Minerva was chosen for a reason as well.

Dizzy H. "Muffin" Muffin

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #15 on: May 08, 2011, 06:46:38 pm »
Noice. Not quite the Line-Of-Sight Name I was expecting when the book came up.

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #16 on: May 13, 2011, 12:47:51 am »
I'm gonna need you to go ahead and not forget about this. That'd just be terrible, so, you see, we just can't let that happen.

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #17 on: May 13, 2011, 12:03:26 pm »
Minerva rose early the next day, sometime just before dawn. She moved slowly through the unfamiliar room of the inn, trying not to wake Alice; best to let the child get as much sleep as she could for now. On the other side of the room, Aya mumbled something in her sleep, and turned over.

Washing up was done as best as she could in a place devoid of standard plumbing. Through slow repetition of key phrases and some desperate gesticulation, Minerva managed to obtain the basic ingredients for a sandwich from the inn's staff, who seemed suspicious of this foreign request. From oblique hints and arched brows, Minerva gathered that breakfast, presumably Japanese-style, would be served soon anyway.

"I am just going out for a walk," she told them firmly. "I will be back in time for your breakfast."

The staff muttered darkly among themselves, but let her through. Minerva stepped out onto the dew-covered grass, feeling discontent, outlandish, and thoroughly English.

No doubt everything in this strange land had its own name and history that only vaguely matched up with what Minerva was used to back in Europe, but she could not help thinking of the place the horses and carriage were kept as the coach-house, whatever it was also called in Japanese. In any case, Kamishirasawa was also there, tending to the carriage.

Minerva cleared her throat, politely announcing her presence. Kamishirasawa glanced at her, looked back at the wheel of the carriage he was working on, and then apparently decided that the wheel could wait. He straightened slowly, in the manner of men who intended to live to an old age unburdened by back problems. "Margatroid-san," he greeted neutrally.

"Kamishirasawa-san." Minerva tried to smile reassuringly. "Would you like some assistance?"

He gave her an odd look. Was it her unwomanly offer of help, or some vestige of her self-taught Japanese? "That will not be necessary, Margatroid-san. The problem is not a major one."

"Oh. That's good, I suppose." Surely that was not the limit of their conversation. "Kamishirasawa-san, I don't know if you are aware of why I am travelling to Gensokyo-"

"It is not difficult to guess." Kamishirasawa patted his pockets absent-mindedly, but stopped when he realized what he was doing. Minerva recognized the habits of a man deprived of his habitual tobacco. "I mean no offense, Margatroid-san, but I do not think you are prepared for what lies ahead."

"So I have been told." Minerva had stayed up the previous night reading the book Aya had gave her. Her presence this early in the morning was due in large part to the disturbing dreams she had, based on the descriptions of the youkai within. "And yet nobody really tells me why, or how. Am I to hunt down these youkai, without knowing what they actually are? The faeries of Europe I understand. The youkai of Japan, however..." Minerva shook her head in exasperation. "I did not even know I am not the first youkai-hunter Gensokyo has had. All I was told was that I am to save a village of humans from monsters. It seems to be a noble enough goal, but as each day passes, my suspicion grows. There is something else in this request, Kamishirasawa-san, and without more information, I will be working blindly, making even more mistakes. Please, for both our sakes, and for the sake of the village that is our destination, tell me all you can."

Kamishirasawa leaned against the coach-house doorway, looking contemplatively into the middle distance. "Gensokyo is not an easy place to describe," he said. "It was not always called such, of course. But for as long as I can remember, Gensokyo was as illusionary as its name suggested. We have always... lived, and existed, alongside the youkai. Everyone in Japan did. But then the land changed, and some things are... forgotten. Best left forgotten, perhaps. Except in Gensokyo, where we are reminded of the ones who live alongside us every day." He sighed deeply. "We do not know why. We do not know if we are the only remote village, in the mountains of Japan, far from the cities, to be faced with youkai. But sometimes the young people leave the village, to go to the cities, and they seldom come back. Why should they, when all that is waiting for them back home is darkness and fear? Yet the letters they send back are full of new ideas and thoughts, Japanese and Western alike. And the march of progress will reach Gensokyo, someday, and uncover the truth of these youkai. On that day, perhaps the name 'Gensokyo' will no longer be remembered."

Minerva looked at the gas lamp inside the coach-house, illuminating the interior. "The light of progress, across all of the world," she murmured. "Chasing away the shadows."

Kamishirasawa nodded. "Where would the shadows hide, then? And the old tales, the stories full of fear and warnings, would be forgotten... useless. Stories told only by the old, who still remember what the darkness held, once upon a time. The future is for the young. If the young never meet a youkai, then there is no need for them to remember how to deal with one."

Bread in one pocket, and salt in the other. "How long have you known Aya-san?" Minerva asked distantly.

Kamishirasawa took this change of topic in stride. "Since the day she was born. The Hieda family is... special, particularly in Gensokyo, and Hieda no Aya-dono is even more so. She has a great burden thrust onto her, and she accomplished it admirably well."

"The... Gensokyo Chronicles?"

"Yes. The Kamishirasawa family have been friends to the Hieda family for a very long time, and between each writing of the Gensokyo Chronicles, the Kamishirasawa family have held the responsibility for it in trust."

This, Minerva reflected, was typical of the conversations she had been having with anyone in this benighted land: questions answered with assumptions that the querent would already know everything about the subject matter, and poetic riddles from which the truth had to be sieved. Couldn't these people speak plainly? "Is the Hieda family important? Nobility of some sort?"

Kamishirasawa's expression was impossible to tell in the dim light of dawn, but Minerva assumed it consisted of equal parts pity and donnish patience. "Hieda no Are helped compile the Kojiki for Emperor Temmu... it is like a history book, but more so. It tells the story of the birth of Japan, and the countless kami, and what has happened since then. The myths, legends, and histories of our nation, put together and recited for the first time, over a thousand years ago. I believe it has been translated into English by one of your countrymen; should you come across a copy, I recommend reading it."

As opposed to a Japanese copy, Minerva thought sourly. Then again, considering the trouble she had had with the Gensokyo Chronicles, a thousand-year old book would be far more incomprehensible. The Kojiki sounded like an authorized collection of creation myths, commissioned by an ancient Emperor, and Aya was a direct descendant of this Hieda no Are... or was there more to it?

"If you will pardon my rudeness, Margatroid-san, I do have a matter I would like to clarify."

Minerva started, her train of thought derailed. "What is it? Please, don't hesitate to ask."

"That little girl who accompanies you..."

"You mean Alice?" Minerva pondered the best way to explain. "She is... what is the word? A foundling? An abandoned child I encountered during my journey to Japan. She has..." The man was a respected member of the community in a valley frequently and blatantly haunted by youkai; he would definitely not blink an eye at magic. "Alice has a certain power, a very strong power, to cast magic. I don't quite know the reasons for this, but you must understand why I cannot leave her be. If nothing else, she will be tutored in the arcane arts as well as I am able, and I intend to continue caring for her after my business is done in Gensokyo."

Kamishirasawa did not seem satisfied with this. "Where did she come from?"

"I do not know myself, Kamishirasawa-san. I assume she stowed away on the ship when it was in Shanghai; before that, I have yet to discover. My best guess is that she was taken there from Continental Europe for some... purpose." Traces of magical weavings surrounded Alice, cast by a mysterious mastermind, but fading with each passing day. Had Alice's power been endowed, or was it innate? "As I promised before, she will not be any trouble, Kamishirasawa-san. But if you are curious about her background, then I can only admit that I share your ignorance, and that the only point of origin I can confirm is Shanghai."

"Speaking of whom," a new voice interrupted. This turned out to be Aya, already impeccably-dressed in another kimono. "Your Shanghai Alice is impatiently waiting for you to come back in for breakfast." She nodded in acknowledgement of Kamishirasawa's bow of greeting. "Please do join us as well, Kamishirasawa-san."

Minerva lowered her voice, as they made their way back towards the inn's main building. "Aya-san, about yesterday..."

"It is all right, Margatroid-san. I have been reconciled to my shortened lifespan for a long time, ever since I learned about it from the records. That is why I finished the Gensokyo Chronicles as early as I could, in order to prepare for what comes after."

What information have you picked up here, Minerva? The Hieda family evidently had a problem with the longevity of certain important members. They knew about this for long enough to have written down not only records of these short lives, but also some sort of... preparation? Ritual? Something that they would have to do before death took them. Was it mystical or mundane? Did it involve the spiritual world, or was it merely settling debts and composing a will? What was the supernatural world like, here in Japan?

Aya caught her puzzled expression. "It is best if you see Gensokyo for yourself," she said. "Trying to find the right words, especially between languages, is not very productive."

Breakfast passed without incident. Minerva had suddenly realized how hungry she was, despite the sandwich earlier, and quickly polished off what was set in front of her. Alice had trouble with the chopsticks, which necessitated Minerva having to feed her; Western eating utensils had not yet penetrated this far into the Japanese countryside. Or maybe they had, and this inn was one of the holdouts against foreign influence.

Kamishirasawa wanted to leave as soon as breakfast was done, but Aya overruled him, claiming a need to let their digestion work for an hour or so. "The roads will only get worse from here on," she told Minerva. "I've tried travelling across them right after a meal. I insist we wait before departing."

While waiting, Minerva took the opportunity to pull down her luggage from the carriage, placing it under the shade of a tree. She sat upon it, jotting down a few more notes for her book. Aya ventured over to watch. "Where's Alice?" Minerva asked, not looking up.

"Seeing the horses," Aya said. "Kamishirasawa-san is looking after her. What are you writing?"

"These are notes for the book I'm working on, on magical theory." Minerva frowned, and crossed out a line. "I prefer to plan everything out first before setting it down permanently. What I am hoping to create is a sort of... textbook, or manual, for untrained magicians to grasp the essence of magic."

"A limited run, I assume." At Minerva's surprised look, Aya smiled. "Come now. It is obvious that any such textbook would be dangerous in the wrong hands. The Gensokyo Chronicles would hardly be a danger to anyone, save as a bludgeon; your textbook will have far larger repercussions."

"I am arming my hypothetical readers with the knowledge that could save them, just as you did. Human beings needed every advantage they could have against the otherworldly." The vast majority of folklore Minerva could recall offhand on the fairy folk of England and Europe had been concerned with passive protection, from charms and wards to simple words and phrases to outwit the fae. It was often assumed that the average human would not have the power to harm the fae, not without inviting retribution. A single kobold may be trapped and killed, but there were always more out there. No household could remain vigilant forever, and the fairy folk had long lives and longer memories.

And yet, the more malicious and evil examples of the supernatural often had equally deadly countermeasures. A brownie could be appeased with a saucer of milk, but vampires had a large assortment of weaknesses for the well-prepared hunter to exploit, lycanthropes were dealt with by silver, and for witches there was always fire...

Minerva had studied the Gensokyo Chronicles. Gensokyo had no shortage of malicious and evil youkai.

"What guarantee do you have that your readers will have the wisdom not to use this knowledge against each other?" Aya challenged.

"None whatsoever," Minerva replied equanimously. "What guarantee does the blacksmith have that his scythes and rakes will not be used on his fellow men, instead of fields of wheat? I am not a fool, Aya-san. I have included due diligence in my work; should it be used for ill anyway, the culprit likely does not need my textbook in the first place to cause mischief."

Aya made a sort of ladylike grunt. "So if I were to read that book and learn the lessons within..."

"You might be able to perform some small magic," Minerva allowed. "Some trifle or bagatelle. You do not have the talent for magic, Aya-san." Minerva did not mention that Aya seemed to have something else about her, quite unfamiliar. There was a peculiar power tied indelibly to Aya's fate, but not something that could be consciously utilized. "Everyone has a different ability for magic, destined since their birth. It is a matter of... fortune, I suppose." Or misfortune.

"And you yourself have been... fortunate?"

"I can hardly flatter myself," Minerva said, "but what power I do possess pales beside that of little Alice. The child has some of the greatest potential I have ever seen."

Aya glanced towards the direction of the stables. "Is she so dangerous?"

All that was mentioned was Alice's potential, Minerva noted. Nothing had been said about danger. "Alice requires training and study," she said slowly, "to achieve that potential. Which is what I have been trying to provide." She sighed at Aya's unconvinced expression. "Aya-san, know you this: no matter how powerful a magician may be, there is a limit to what the human body is able to accomplish. The best, greatest, and most dangerous magicians understand this, and so they often tap into other sources of energy to power their spells."

"Other sources?"

"The means are myriad. If I wanted to work an immense spell, for example, I could draw on the magical power inherent in every living thing around me, or every object with a name and history. I could use tools to focus my ability, be they inert tools for channeling or tools with their own source of power, created by artificers of great skill. I could draw on the energy of another world, often by creating a contract with the denizens therein; this is the favoured method of the diabolists, as well as the more faithful or radical members of the Church. I could use the potential within other humans or animals, and perform a ritual of sacrifice; blood is an excellent link. I could do any combination of these, and many more besides." Minerva tapped her pencil against the piece of notepaper. "I have yet to fully explore the possibilities available to me here in the Orient, beyond what vague and corrupted information I have heard from my colleagues in Europe and the Americas."

Aya seemed about to say something, but she was interrupted by Alice's voice, calling for them from the carriage, which had been brought out into the open. Aya gave Minerva a guarded smile. "It is time to go, I believe. We had best hurry, if we want to make good time; the wait was necessary, but not kind to our schedule."

Minerva began packing her notes back into the satchel. "We can continue this later, if you'd like. I do need to review what I have read in the Gensokyo Chronicles, and I'm sure Alice must be bored of sitting in that carriage, staring at nothing but farmland. If it is all right with you, we could improve our knowledge of Gensokyo and Japanese at the same time."

"That will be acceptable," Aya said. "I thank you for the lesson in magic, Margatroid-san. However, as your student in this, I do have a question for the teacher."

"What is it, Aya-san?"

"Which method will you use to obtain the power to save Gensokyo?"

Before Minerva could answer, Aya was already making her way towards the carriage.

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #18 on: May 14, 2011, 02:20:15 am »
Another nice update.  You have a strong talent for describing the intricacies of the supernatural without getting boring.

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #19 on: May 16, 2011, 12:34:24 pm »
Minerva wasn't sure when the roads had turned into nothing more than glorified dirth paths, but by the third day of travel in the carriage, it was all too easy to imagine themselves passing through an invisible boundary line between human habitation into another, more inimical world.

Even the skies seemed to match the gloominess of the place, grey and sunless. If it wasn't for the occasional sight of a lonely farmer tilling the fields in the distance, the carriage would have seemed like the only place that held any sense of reality; anything else outside the windows were but illusions, lulling the viewer into a false sense of normality, but not quite getting it correct. The eerie feeling permeated their surroundings, of things not quite being what they seemed, and another world hidden underneath the veneer of farms and fields.

Alice had been getting gradually more restless as they neared their destination, even now dozing fitfully on Minerva's lap. Minerva herself felt oddly discontent and distracted, although she could not pin down a reason for this. Something in the air, it seemed, even within the hot and stuffy carriage. The clouds overhead did not help, even as they blocked out the direct rays of the sun; even so, there was never enough of a breeze to counter the heavy, muggy summer heat.

Aya, for her part, remained unperturbed. Minerva's initial impression of her doll-like nature was reinforced by her demeanour here, perfect and still, as though on display. Would anyone purchase a doll such as Aya? She was certainly pretty enough, even beautiful, but there was something about her that made one uneasy to be in her presence. A sort of unrealness, not quite within the same realm as the rest of humanity.

"Is something the matter?" Aya asked politely, and Minerva started in surprise. Had she been staring?

"I apologize. I was just lost in thought." Minerva spoke quickly to forestall the obvious follow-up. "It's nothing important. I was indulging my imagination on what we would find in Gensokyo. Not on mere flights of fancy, of course, but possible incidents and setbacks we may face due to Gensokyo's... unique circumstances, as well as how to overcome them." She forced a smile. "One of these scenarios would involve this carriage being attacked by youkai. I am fairly confident that I will be able to prevent any harm to our persons, but should they damage our means of transportation..."

"That is not necessary, Margatroid-san." Aya seemed amused by Minerva's speculations. "Youkai almost never attack groups of travellers, and certainly not anyone in a carriage. Any who do are likely to be under the command or coercion of a stronger, more intelligent one, and those can always be negotiated with."

Minerva glanced upwards at the roof. "Would Kamishirasawa-san be aware of this?"

"Of course. Kamishirasawa-san is a... special case, in Gensokyo. In a way, he sympathizes with the youkai, or at least believes that they need not be wiped out to the last. He is well-known for his ideals of co-existence, despite opposition from various other groups. Most people believe it is because he is a good person at heart, but he does not fully understand the depredations of the youkai against the humans, and so youkai attacks are merely academic reports that he reads, distanced from the scene." Aya frowned. "Personally, I suspect he knows the dangers of youkai very well. There must be something more."

"You haven't asked him?"

"Contrary to what you may believe, Margatroid-san, I do not pry into the affairs of my close friends. He is here, despite his high position in Gensokyo's society, because you can hardly be expected to drive yourself to a place not even listed on the map, and I have... certain circumstances which prevent me from doing so as your sole guide. Kamishirasawa-san is the only person who was willing to perform this favour who could be trusted."

Deductions: other people were available as coach-drivers, but Aya did not trust them for some reason. There may have been other people Aya trusted, but they did not want to leave Gensokyo. Also, Aya did not consider Minerva a close friend.

"In any case," Aya continued, "we are already within the borders of Gensokyo. The exact demarcation line is not exact, but in another hour or so we shall be at the village. The farms and settlements out here are just as much a part of Gensokyo as the village, as far as humans are concerned. We are understandably reluctant to seek out youkai settlements, but we are indisputably in their territory."

"Oh?" Minerva looked out of the window at the fields, across the gently rolling hills, culminating in the distant mountains. "I haven't seen any youkai."

"As I mentioned, youkai will not attack the carriage, and when youkai do not plan to attack, they seldom show themselves. We are more likely to see bandits than youkai."

"I haven't seen any bandits either."

Aya's smiled widely enough to show her teeth. "The practical restrictions regarding youkai attacks on carriages do not apply to bandits."

True to her word, the village in Gensokyo could be seen trundling past the carriage within the hour. After a few clarifications with Aya, Minerva discovered that whatever name the village had held before, people now referred to it simply as the village. Aya had rattled off a list of names kept on record by the local civil service, each one from a different period of history, when one shogun or other had held the general area. None of the area's governors seemed to care much for the valley of Gensokyo; it was too far out of the way of anything of strategic importance, and there were no regional specialties, unless one counted the unusually high number of youkai.

The village was a large one, far beyond the tiny hamlet that Minerva had imagined, but there were obvious signs that it did not survive alone. Trade existed with the rest of civilization, and Minerva could see sprinklings of modernization, as the carriage swung by the village proper without entering. Their destination would be the Hieda family residence, a large mansion located a short distance from the village on a low hill.

And Minerva finally managed to pin down a small portion of her unease. "Aya-san, the village here in Gensokyo does trade with other towns and cities, doesn't it?"

"Of course."

"Then why haven't we seen any other caravans or wagons on the way here? I wouldn't have expected much traffic, but the solitude of our journey seems odd."

Aya frowned. "You're right. I'll ask around and see if there is a reason for this. I have my suspicions, but surely..."

"Surely?"

Aya shook her head. "It doesn't matter. What's done is done, and we shouldn't guess, without evidence. It likely has very little to do with you or your assignment here, Margatroid-san. Don't let it bother you."

Alice woke groggily as they finally approached the Hieda mansion. Minerva predicted a sleepless night for her, which should serve as a useful lesson on not over-napping during the day. It was impossible to tell the time from the overcast skies, but Minerva guessed it to be just after noon.

Kamishirasawa stopped the carriage in front of the entrance to the mansion, and walked around to open the door for the ladies. From inside the house, what seemed like a small army of maids and manservants streamed out to greet Aya, who acknowledged them with a regal nod.

Minerva stepped out of the carriage as well, while Alice seemed torn between hiding behind Minerva's skirt and gawking at the mansion. Minerva fixed a smile onto her face as Aya introduced them, enunciating their names clearly for the servants; from the general reaction, they had been expecting a foreign woman of some vague description, but actually seeing Minerva in the flesh was another thing entirely. Minerva wondered if she lived up to their expectations; were they expecting someone flashier, full to bursting with magic and power? Or perhaps a missionary of some sort? At least Minerva did not need to prove her estrangement with the Church by trampling on religious portraits, ever since the Meiji emperor had rescinded that edict.

Kamishirasawa murmured a few standard apologies as he departed with the horses and carriage, intending to store them wherever such objects are stored. The luggage had been unloaded with gratifying speed, and teams of eagerly helpful male servants were efficiently carrying them inside.

"We have a few spare rooms," Aya was saying, "although some of them have not been aired out in a long time. If you require anything, please feel free to summon a servant; I have told them that you are an honoured guest in my home, and shall be treated as such. I would advise you, however, not to venture out into the village on your own, as it is easy to lose one's way. Do take someone else along with you."

Minerva began to nod, thought better of it, and curtseyed instead. "Thank you for your courtesy, Aya-san. I owe you a debt of gratitude. I hope I will be able to pay my respects to your family soon?" She made it a question; why hadn't anyone else from the Hieda family come out to greet Aya?

Aya seemed puzzled by the request. "My family... oh, you mean the others in the Hieda family. They will be back in a few..." She broke off to consult briefly with a maid. "A few days. They will also be staying here, but the mansion is large enough that your paths need not cross."

Was Minerva being relegated to an impromptu foreign settlement inside the house? Or did Aya not want Minerva to meet the rest of her family for some reason? Was it her, or them? Or even both?

"We'll have something to eat as soon as you freshen up," Aya said, causing Alice to brighten up considerably. "We have plenty of modern conveniences for your use. After that, your time is your own, although I believe you may prefer to unpack your luggage first." Alice made a sour face.

"And what will you be doing, if I might ask?"

"I'm not sure," Aya admitted with a smile. "It has been a long time since I had the freedom not to be sure."

-

The mansion had originally been built according to the traditional Japanese style, but here and there Western influences could be seen in varying degrees of encroachment. Minerva's room was certainly in the European style of extravagant luxury, complete with an ornate desk, a few expensively-carved chairs, and a large four-poster bed and eiderdown duvet. Alice had stared longingly at the bed, but Minerva had firmly vetoed bouncing, at least until after they finished with their immediate responsibilities.

This did not take very long, since Minerva was used to travelling relatively light, and the addition of Alice had not been a significant extra burden. The room did seem a little bare even after they were done; Minerva made a note to furnish it with the proper equipment of a magician, without bothering with the gaudy trinkets to fool the gullible. There was nobody here to fool but herself, after all, and if she failed to bring this Gensokyo business to a satisfying close because she had been wasting time on trifles...

But this was a strange land, and Minerva's instincts, accustomed to the cabals and rituals of Europe, could lead her through the wrong paths here. She needed more information. She needed to see Gensokyo for herself.

Unfortunately, any plans to explore the valley had to be put on hold for the day, as the clouds opened up. The rain eventually took the edge off the summer heat, but lent its own gloom to the atmosphere inside the house.

When Aya dropped by to check on them, Minerva was working on her Japanese, with the help of her pocket dictionary, fortified with a larger, more comprehensive one she had found, after inquiring with the servants. Alice was seated on the bed, idly stitching a doll-sized dress, although it was clear her heart wasn't in it.

Aya gazed levelly at Alice for a few moments, before turning to Minerva. "Aren't you worried about Alice's safety around needles?"

Minerva set down her pen, and closed her eyes, bringing a hand up to massage them. "Alice is much better than I am at needlework," she said. "I've never seen her prick herself even once. After the first few times I supervised her closely, I could tell that it would just be a waste of my time and her talents."

"She must have been uneasy at being watched so intently, too."

"Hardly. Alice seems to shut out the world around her when she's working on something. She does remain alert enough to react when needed, though." Minerva smiled fondly. "I wish I could do that."

Aya casually took a seat. She seemed noticeably more relaxed than during the trip. "How are you settling in so far?" she asked.

"Well enough, thank you. I must say I'm surprised at all this..." Minerva waved a hand, indicating her room. "Familiar conveniences."

"I did say that Gensokyo was not the backwater you probably imagined it was, Margatroid-san. We do know what goes on in the rest of Japan and the world. You are certainly not the first Westerner here, although I will admit we are not awash in them either." Aya shrugged. "Western-educated Japanese, certainly, and they are often local boys who came back home with new ideas; casual immigration into Gensokyo is not common. But we are not so isolated by the youkai that we have lost all contact with the outside world. Humanity will find a way."

Minerva wondered why Aya kept emphasizing Minerva's ignorance of the intricacies of Japanese culture. "In any case, let me once again express my gratitude at your hospitality."

Aya accepted the polite change of subject with grace. "Do you have everything you need?"

"If I might impose upon you further..." Minerva sifted through the papers on the desk. "It would be useful if I could obtain certain items... mainly experimental apparatus, for my research."

"Magic?"

"And alchemy, among others. Speaking of which, it might not be a good idea to perform my experiments inside the house. Is there an isolated area nearby that is preferably downwind of any human habitation?"

Aya made a pained expression. "Margatroid-san, isolated areas are easily found in Gensokyo. Isolated areas free of youkai interference are considerably rarer." She sighed. "I will see what I can do. In the meantime, do you have a list of the items you require?"

Minerva handed her a note. "I'm afraid I don't know the Japanese translations for some of these, so I wrote the whole list in English. Is there any item that is unclear?"

Aya studied the list. "I believe I know what most of these are. I am not sure if you will be able to obtain them easily, though. You may have to create a few of these yourself. As for the rest, there should be a few shops in the village that can get you what you need. Tomorrow, maybe, if the rain has cleared up by then."

Alice looked up at this, her expression making her feelings on the rain very clear.

Aya chuckled. "I don't suppose you have any magic to improve the weather, Margatroid-san?"

Minerva shook her head, smiling. "Not at this moment."

"Then it seems we will have to rely on our own methods." Aya sat down beside Alice, pulling an unused handkerchief out of her sleeve. "Alice, let me teach you a charm we use in Japan to make it sunny. It's called a teruterubozu. Te-ru te-ru bo-zu." Alice tilted her head, curious. "Now, we need two pieces of white cloth or paper, a piece of string, and some ink... Margatroid-san, if we may borrow your pen and inkwell..."

Minerva tried not to show her initial reaction at the end result, which reminded her too much of a hanged man for her taste. A hanged doll, perhaps. Alice seemed perfectly enchanted by it, however, and immediately began working on the next one.

"These are to be hung outside the window?" Minerva asked, inspecting one of the finished examples. It really was quite well-made. "How many are usually required, Aya-san?"

"As many as you wish," Aya replied calmly, passing Alice a suitable length of string. "The total number is often determined when one runs out of material, or becomes bored of manufacturing. For the most part, the more teruterubozu that are put up, the more fervent the desire for clear skies."

Minerva glanced at the window. Alice would certainly not be able to reach up that high without assistance.

She stood, and walked towards the window. "I'll be looking forward to a tour of the village tomorrow, Aya-san," she said, reaching up to tie off the string.

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #20 on: May 16, 2011, 08:39:07 pm »
Quote
"The practical restrictions regarding youkai attacks on carriages do not apply to bandits."
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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #21 on: May 18, 2011, 06:37:25 pm »
A good read. I will be keeping tabs on this one.
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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #22 on: May 27, 2011, 10:02:34 am »
Whether it was the work of the anti-rain charms or mere meteorological probability, the next day dawned bright and sunny. Alice was already awake, washed up, and dressed for departure by the time Aya finally managed to wake up. Minerva watched with amusement as Alice jittered impatiently in her seat at the breakfast table, while Aya dozed over her coffee. Apparently being back home had made Aya more complacent than Minerva had ever seen her on the road.

Possibly in deference to their guests, the Hieda household servants had prepared an English breakfast this morning, which was close enough to the real thing that Minerva forgave them the paltry portions. Aya had a lighter Continental-style breakfast of eggs on toast for her more delicate stomach; Minerva predicted a return to traditional Japanese breakfasts tomorrow.

"Are you sure you still want to come along?" Minerva asked Alice, in a conversational attempt to keep the child from running off to the village on her own. "It will probably involve a lot of walking, and not much by way of entertainment for children. I could buy something for you when I return... no? Very well, but you're not to complain about being bored, all right?" Alice had shaken her head emphatically, followed by an impatient look at Aya, who was breaking her fast without hurry or haste.

"There might be a few street shows," Aya said quietly, suppressing an unladylike yawn. "The village should be safe for a child like her to wander in. We don't have much serious crime to worry about, although it would still be a good idea to keep an eye on Alice."

The implication being the youkai outside the village were causing more than enough trouble, of course. Humans often banded together against an external threat, where they would turn on each other in the absence thereof. And yet, Minerva had not seen anything resembling a siege mentality from her cursory observations. Were the Hieda household servants a different breed from the average villager? Or did everyone just pretend that there was nothing to fear as long as they stayed within the village? Was it even a pretense?

Did these people need saving from the monsters surrounding them?

"Do you have that list of what you require?" Aya asked, nudging her cup of coffee suspiciously. Minerva had seen her pour in several spoonfuls of sugar and a prodigious amount of milk after the first tentative sip. "I can show you where most of it can be found, but I must warn you that it will be expensive."

"I'll have to find a patron, then," Minerva said. "Failing that, I might join those street shows you mentioned. I am told I'm very popular with children."

Aya glanced at Alice, who had finally settled into a posture of long-suffering patience. "No doubt."

The entourage that departed the Hieda mansion consisted of Minerva, Alice, Aya, and three servants: two young men and one older woman, who trailed a respectful distance behind them. Minerva could guess the use of the men, based on the likely combined weight of the items on this shopping trip, and indeed they both wore the resigned expressions universal to the role. The woman was probably the resident hard bargainer, Minerva guessed; Aya did not seem the sort to care about income and expenditures.

Now that Minerva had leisure to observe her surroundings, the village seemed more welcoming than the gloomy sight she had seen from the carriage window the previous day. The surrounding mountains still seemed to press in oppressively on the tiny human community that dared make their homes here, but the cheerily strident voices of the villagers hawking their wares at market would not have been out of place in any other rural village or town in Britain Minerva could name.

Their little party attracted several curious stares, which Minerva tried her best to ignore. Was it her obvious foreign appearance? Maybe she should ask Aya for some examples of local dress; if she was to get anything done in this place, it would be best not to create immediate suspicion and xenophobia, however unintended.

Alice, true to her word, refrained from complaining while prices were negotiated at length. The older maidservant made good use of the little girl's presence, bargaining rapid-fire with increasingly harried-looking tradesmen. Aya limited her contributions to approving nods and the occasional cryptic comment, which nevertheless seemed to clinch the deal on the spot. Minerva could not fathom why a non-sequitur on the weather or an inquiry into the health of the tradesman would result in such drastic capitulation; was Aya merely reminding everyone of her presence? Did the Hieda family have that much influence in Gensokyo?

"In a manner of speaking," Aya said thoughtfully, when Minerva brought up the subject. "It is not easy to explain. It is... partly respect, partly courtesy, partly sympathy, and partly gratitude."

Minerva could understand the respect and courtesy the Hieda family commanded. Sympathy... "Gratitude? For the Gensokyo Chronicles, I presume?"

"Among others. I also help the civil service and any seeker of knowledge with their inquiries on the history of Gensokyo. You must have realized that the book I was carrying seems unusually slim for even just a list of youkai and their habits."

"I had some suspicions..."

"That is the... what would you call it? The mass-circulation version. Subsidized heavily by the Hieda family, with support from the leaders of the community in Gensokyo. I aim to have this guidebook be readily available to everyone in Gensokyo." Aya waved a hand. "But I digress. The true Gensokyo Chronicles are much lengthier, and are not to be taken out of the Hieda household. It is also an ongoing work, since I am still collecting reports of new youkai sightings even now. The information will be included in the next edition."

The next edition, which would be written by Aya's successor, a hundred and twenty years from now. Minerva wondered if the Gensokyo Chronicles would eventually reach a final version, a point where no new information could ever be included. Would it be a complete chronicle of Gensokyo at that point? Was such a perfect memento possible?

With a start, she realized that Aya had been falling behind. The servants were also closing the gap, looking concerned. "Aya-san?"

"I am all right," Aya said. She looked even paler than usual, and was breathing hard. "Just a little short of breath." She waved off the servants. "Please give me a moment."

Minerva consulted her list. "We're almost done for now, anyhow. We can head back to the mansion if you'd like."

"No need. I'll just rest under the shade for a moment." Aya smiled. "That tea shop Alice has been eyeing for the past few minutes would be ideal."

Alice looked properly abashed, growing redder as her stomach made her complaint for her.

The proprietor of the tea shop quickly ushered them to a cool area under the shade. After some low-voiced discussion, the two male servants returned to the mansion, laden with goods, while the woman remained by Aya's side, steadfastly ignoring Aya's murmured protests on her health.

Tea and snacks were served with alacrity. Aya's colour returned reassuringly quickly after a few bites, while Alice consumed her share with the speed of a growing child.

"These are quite delicious," Minerva said. "These, er..."

"Manjuu," Aya supplied. "Buckwheat shell with sweet bean paste inside. The ingredients and contents vary by region, of course. Gensokyo has quite a few varieties."

"Manjuu," Alice echoed.

"Don't talk with your mouth full, dear. In any case, Aya-san, would you mind if I looked around by myself for the last few items on my list? They can't be all that difficult to carry, and it would save some time." At Aya's skeptical look, Minerva added, "I doubt I'll be so easily lost. I'm sure I'll be able to find my way back out there." She gestured towards the wide open area in front of the tea shop.

Aya took a sip of her tea. "This is the main village square, in fact. And there is only one more shop left likely to have what you seek. They deal in odds and ends, with a fair number of goods imported from outside Japan." She traced out an imaginary route on the table, giving succinct directions. "It's a large shophouse, but not so large that it stands out. Be careful."

"I can ask around if I'm uncertain. What's the name on the shop sign?"

"Kirisame," Aya said.

-----

For such a large shop interior, the Kirisame Store seemed to be haphazardly laid out. The building was surrounded by others of its size or larger, placing it in near-permanent shade. It was clear that some effort had been made in brightening up the interior of the shop, but the overall impression was still not particularly inviting.

Minerva's entrance attracted the attention of the two people chatting at the store counter. The one on the customer's side was a solidly-built young man with intelligent eyes and animated features. He had an easy smile, and the confident, handsome air of a natural charmer, yet possessed a certain innocent naivete in his expression that no cold-blooded womanizer had. Minerva guessed him to be the local equivalent of the bachelor so desirable that none of the women dared to approach him. That, or he had some sort of unwitting quirk or flaw which removed him from the running, leaving him confused... Minerva averted her stare, before her speculations ran wild.

Behind the counter was a slightly older woman, who looked even more so due to the care-worn lines on her face. There were signs of a striking beauty once, before some tragedy had stolen the light in her life. Nevertheless, she maintained a tired smile, determined not to give in to her obvious despair.

She was also obviously not Japanese, with her blonde hair and amber eyes. Minerva felt an odd sense of spontaneous kinship with this fellow outlander.

The young man stepped back politely, taking Minerva for a customer in need of assistance. The woman put on a professional smile. "May I help you?" she asked.

Minerva cleared her throat. "Are you..." she began in English.

The woman's smile quirked in understanding. "Portugal," she replied.

Fair enough. "Britain," Minerva said. Switching back to Japanese: "I've just arrived here in Japan, and it has been something of a cultural experience. I hope I'll be able to acclimatize myself in due time."

"Then I suppose I should welcome you to Japan," the young man said, bowing. "And to our poor Gensokyo. What brings you here to this forsaken region, forgotten by the Meiji Emperor, may he reign in as many languages as spoken by the hangers-on surrounding him?"

"Seiji," the woman admonished quietly.

Unwitting flaw identified: this Seiji had a smart mouth. "It's a long story," Minerva said airily. "I'd be happy to elaborate, but first..." She handed the list of items needed to the woman. "Might I inquire if you have any of these in stock?"

The woman scanned the list, skipping over the crossed-out entries that the shopping trip had already resolved. "Alchemy?" she said, giving Minerva a penetrating look.

Minerva paused. It was hard to tell if the woman approved or otherwise of this subject. "Yes."

"A youkai hunter?" Seiji asked, before the woman could continue.

"I'm not sure," Minerva countered. "I assume most youkai hunters know what they're supposed to be doing, which is more than I can say for myself."

"From my experience," Seiji said, "that's not exactly a safe assumption to make."

The woman rapped her knuckles on the counter. "That will be enough, Seiji." She turned to Minerva. "I apologize for Seiji's words."

Minerva shook her head, smiling. "No offence taken." Especially since she had been getting more or less the same treatment from Aya since their first meeting. "About those items..."

The woman laid the list onto the counter. "I can provide you with these," she said, pointing, "but not this or this. This one will have to be second-hand, I'm afraid. I can't tell whether it is still good enough to use. Will that be all right?"

"Of course. I'd have to check on that second-hand item first, mind." It was still better than Minerva had expected.

"I'll bring it out from storage." The woman bowed. "And I'd also like to welcome you to Gensokyo... Miss?" The last word was spoken in accented English.

"Minerva Margatroid. That is," Minerva added in Japanese, "given name Minerva, and surname Margatroid."

"Maria Kirisame." The woman must have caught Minerva's confused expression. "Formerly Maria de Silva, before I settled down here."

"Given name Seiji, surname Kirisame," Seiji interjected, as Maria ducked into the back of the shop. "Brother-in-law. I help out around the shop now and again."

While Maria was collecting the items, Minerva browsed the rest of the shop, as Seiji lounged around the counter, possibly keeping an eye on her. There did not seem to be a unified theme to what was being sold, apart from perhaps the absence of perishables. Odds and ends, knicks and knacks, some of which had been brought in from overseas. On a whim, Minerva picked up a few more sewing materials, as well as a book in English purporting to feature Dolls Of The World. Maybe Alice could glean some inspiration from it.

Maria finally emerged, carrying a few wrapped packages. Seiji promptly darted over to give her a hand. Maria unwrapped one of the packages, revealing an old balance scale with weights; Minerva was pleased to see that the weights had Arabic numerals imprinted, as requested. "Would this be acceptable, Margatroid-san?"

Minerva tested the scales with varying weights, and found that they were accurate, or at least accurate enough for her purposes. "These will do fine, Kirisame-san."

"Please, call me Maria." The shopkeeper rewrapped the scales. "Will you be able to handle all this? I can ask Seiji to deliver it for you..."

"It's all right. But thank you for the offer."

Maria quoted a price Minerva felt was eminently fair. "Please do come again," Maria said. "Although... if I should come across one of the other items on your list, would you like to be contacted?"

"That would be a great help," Minerva agreed. "I'm living at the Hieda family mansion, up on the hill." Both Seiji and Maria gave her an odd look. "Is something the matter?"

"It's nothing," Maria assured her. "Thank you for your patronage."

When Minerva returned to the tea shop, she found Aya alone. "Alice fell asleep while waiting," Aya informed her. "I had the maid carry her back home. Did you find what you were looking for?"

Minerva nodded, as they started back towards the Hieda mansion. "And a few other things besides. Unfortunately, I might have to create some of the ingredients I need myself."

Aya sighed. "Would a small shack around the rear of the mansion be suitable? It's not the best option, but until we can find that secluded downwind spot of yours, free of youkai, it will have to do."

"My gratitude and appreciation, Aya-san."

"Not at all. I would not want to see the mansion accidentally blown up, or filled with noxious fumes. Was there anything else you needed?"

"Possibly," Minerva said, glancing up at the mountains surrounding the village. "Do you know of any caves in the area, Aya-san? Large ones, preferably. And stable."

"There might be one," Aya hazarded. "It's a fair distance from the village, though."

"Then I can wait on your convenience," Minerva said. "The need is not pressing."

Aya nodded. "I don't know if it will fit your criteria, but the cave is over there," she said, tilting her head in the indicated direction. "The road is... I would not say well-travelled, but it is at least travelled, and protected. Youkai attacks will not happen there."

"Protected?"

"There is a shrine in the area. I have been meaning to introduce you to the shrine maiden, Margatroid-san. The meeting may prove enlightening."

Iced Fairy

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #23 on: May 27, 2011, 06:48:50 pm »
Another peice of the puzzle added.  Very nicely too.

I wonder when "Ms Violet" is going to get involved again.

Dizzy H. "Muffin" Muffin

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #24 on: May 27, 2011, 08:19:09 pm »
I facepalmed at "perfect memento". :V

Also, I was half expecting Rinnosuke.

Still good, tho.
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Esifex

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #25 on: May 27, 2011, 09:07:46 pm »
... I love you, Yayifications.

Yayifications

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Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #26 on: June 20, 2011, 04:17:58 pm »

Minerva managed to notice the increased flurry of activity only when the murmur of distant chatter filtered into her room at the Hieda mansion.

The front entrance of the mansion was barely visible from the window, but Minerva could see a crowd of servants greeting a small delegation of important people. From this distance, she could make out a tall, white-haired man who seemed to be in charge, as well as a younger, nervous-looking couple. No children, however.

"Done," Alice suddenly said, holding up her arithmetic homework for inspection.

Minerva absently scanned through it. "You forgot to carry the two here, Alice," she said, handing the slate back. Alice grumbled something under her breath, but attacked the problem sets with renewed determination, as Minerva turned her attention back to the scene outside.

Aya was there now, greeting the newcomers. There was a lengthy bout of bowing to each other, interrupted by the woman of the couple catching Aya in what looked like an unexpected hug, judging from Aya's stiff posture. Not an unwelcome greeting, in any case, since Aya gingerly returned the woman's affection after a moment. With that done, the group entered the mansion, trailing servants and porters.

What was it Aya had said a few days ago? The rest of the Hieda family would be coming here around this time. The older man looked to be about the age Aya's father would be, but there had been something more formal in how they greeted each other than Minerva would have expected from family. Then again, she did not even need to venture beyond England if she were to seek examples of parents who ran their families more like impersonal showcases of Proper Behaviour than a warm, loving home. Minerva's own family... had not been so cold, now that she had so many years to look back upon them.

Someone was tugging on her sleeve. Minerva looked down to see Alice staring at her with a quizzical expression.

"It's nothing, dear," she said quietly, not quite trusting her voice to remain steady. "Just thinking of some old and forgotten things." She patted the little girl on the head, with a smile. "It doesn't have anything to do with the present."

Alice did not look convinced, but she did not pursue the matter further. Instead, she held up her homework slate again, this time with corrected answers.

After the lesson, Minerva wandered the halls of the Hieda residence in search of the newly-arrived members of the household. Alice had been left in their room with another set of geometry problems, slightly more advanced than Minerva remembered herself handling at that age, but certainly within the girl's capabilities. Minerva expected Alice to quickly tire of angles and trigonometry, procrastinating with far more interesting pastimes involving dolls and dresses; the problems had been set mostly as an excuse to stop Alice from following Minerva around everywhere.

Minerva's quest was resolved relatively quickly, when she overheard conversation through one of the paper screen doors, signifying her passage from the Westernized, wooden door area of the mansion, into a symbolic Orient. She edged away from the door, straining her ears to eavesdrop on the discussion.

Aya was present, her soft voice clear and recognizable. She sounded calm, almost clinical, in the tones of someone imparting information without bias or opinion. Minerva could hear her name being repeated a few times, each syllable enunciated slowly; presumably Aya was explaining the presence of foreigners in the Hieda mansion.

Feedback in this conversation was provided by a series of grunts and acknowledgements from a male throat. Minerva guessed this to be the elderly gentleman, who did not sound very happy at what Aya was telling him, but seemed resigned to circumstances. The occasional question was voiced, prompting yet more explanations from Aya.

Minerva was so intent on deciphering the quiet discussion inside the room that she did not notice the young woman behind her until the woman patiently glided forth into her field of view.

Minerva recognized her immediately as another one of the returning Hieda family: the female half of the couple, and from her actions earlier, a vivacious soul generous with her displays of affection. She held a tray in her hands, on which were the necessary containers for a serving of tea. Minerva counted three cups.

The woman wore a wide, faintly mischievous smile, which she quickly smoothed into the usual expression of passive stoicism celebrated in their culture as the epitome of elegant breeding. "Please wait a moment," she whispered to Minerva, as she placed the tray onto the floor in front of the door, and knelt down beside it. She made a quick gesture for Minerva to retreat a few paces, which Minerva obediently did. When the woman seemed satisfied, she slid open the door.

A lengthy, tedious procedure took place, involving much bowing and kneeling, before the woman finally entered the room and shut the door. The conversation inside the room trailed off into awkward silence, and Minerva imagined the elaborate motions of the traditional Japanese tea-serving ritual being carried out behind that door. This required something on the order of an eternity, before the door slid open again, to yet more bowing and kneeling. When the entire performance was over, the woman closed the door, and stood up, apparently unperturbed by her recent exertions of custom.

"We shouldn't disturb them," she murmured, bundling Minerva away, through even more hallways towards what turned out to be a sort of drawing room. Here, she bade Minerva sit, and summoned a handy servant to deliver tea and snacks. Minerva harboured a faint hope that they could at least dispense with the serving ceremony this time.

"So you're the famous youkai hunter, Margatroid-san," the woman said. "We've heard so much about you from Aya. Ah, I'm Miho, from the branch family of the Hieda." A brief hesitation. "Although I suppose we're the main family now. Aya's my cousin, from Father's side, so we've always been close."

Minerva mentally filed away the information received from this brief introduction for further study and speculation. "Charmed, I'm sure. Er, I should be welcoming you... or rather, welcoming you back to your home?"

Miho flapped a hand impatiently. "It's a bit complicated now, yes," she said. "I got most of the story from Aya, although it's going to take a little longer before Father can accept it. I don't mind your staying in this house, though, if it helps. And neither does Ryotarou too. Probably."

"Thank you," Minerva replied, for lack of anything more cogent. Miho bore a marked physical resemblance to her cousin, now that Minerva could examine her up close, but their personalities diverged. Miho did not so much speak as gush, much as a brook would, words tumbling over each other in a bubbling flow. A marked contrast to Aya's calm, quiet authority; Minerva was not quite sure which one she would have preferred. At least Miho hadn't started on the snide insinuations yet.

Further information was provided after the requisite pleasantries, and allowing for a brief interruption when the tea and snacks arrived, eliciting a happy exclamation from Miho. Ryotarou turned out to be Miho's husband, only recently wedded, and more than a little bewildered by the baroque intricacies of the family he had married into. Ryotarou was currently attending the alleged conversation between Aya and the Hieda family patriarch, and Minerva could envision him rigidly staring at a point a few inches beside Aya's head in sheer social terror.

"He's such an intelligent man, really," Miho assured her, through steady consumption of the snacks. "He's just shy, most of the time. But I'm sure he'll open up soon enough, and then you'll be great friends. He's very interested in the world beyond Japan, you know. Father approves of this, and so he's been trying to encourage that in Ryotarou... except sometimes Father can be kind of overbearing. But he means well, really! Father's just not good at expressing himself, and Ryotarou's still so nervous around our family, so it gets really-"

Minerva held up a hand in an effort to stem the tide of gossip. "Forgive me for being rude, Miho-san, but I am still unclear about the role that Aya-san plays in the Hieda family. She is... a person of influence?"

Miho stared at her. "Aya is... I'm sorry, I forgot that you've just arrived in Gensokyo. Um. How should I explain it? Aya is the reason why the Hieda family is important, and she is the most important person in the family, but it's more about who she is than who she is, you know?"

Minerva cocked her head to the side. "That one might need a little more elaboration, Miho-san."

"It's just... Aya's my cousin, so it's hard for me to think of her as anything else. It's not really the sort of thing that's easy to explain, Margatroid-san." Miho looked especially uncomfortable. "It's... complicated. Really, really complicated."

Minerva pondered the frequency of assurances that she could never understand certain concepts, without anyone ever explaining what those concepts even were. Then again, Miho's reluctance appeared to be based on something more personal than assumptions on the mental capacity of foreigners. There was something about Aya's position in the hierarchy of the Hieda family, and the society of Gensokyo as a whole, that people did not want to talk about. It was just something they knew, as though they absorbed the knowledge through the air they breathed.

"Margatroid-san?"

Minerva started, jarred out of her thoughts. "My apologies, Miho-san. I was thinking about something unimportant." Except it had been important, even though Minerva could not begin to guess what it was. Something about the air in Gensokyo? Not the air. Something about Gensokyo itself, that would answer the questions she hadn't even known about, and lead her to the truth about this haunted land...

But it was lost now. Minerva would have to try again, and hope the insight did not wriggle out of her grasp next time.

She fixed a polite smile onto her face. "You are not part of the discussion involving, er, my lodging in your household?"

Miho shook her head. "It's for Father to decide. Well, not really; it's for Aya to decide, and since she's already decided, it's for Father to nod and agree. There's no point in my joining in, not while Aya's all grumpy like that. She's no fun until she cheers up."

Minerva tried to imagine a cheerful Aya. She was not quite certain she succeeded. "What has Aya-san told you about me?"

Miho tapped the biscuit in her fingers thoughtfully. "It's kind of weird," she admitted. "We were taking care of business in the capital when Aya just ran off without warning, and when she came back, she said she had to pick up a foreign youkai hunter from Yokohama as soon as possible. We tried to arrange for someone to help her along the way, and Kamishirasawa-san... have you met him, by the way? Oh, good... Kamishirasawa-san did most of the arrangements in Nagano. Um, the next thing we knew, Aya was telling us that you were staying here, along with... oh, that's right! I'd love to meet little Alice!"

Minerva gave up on her information gathering for now. "I'd be happy to introduce the two of you, but I must warn you that Alice is a tad wary around strangers."

"Oh, don't worry about it," Miho said airily. "We're all living under the same roof, right? We have plenty of time to get to know one another. I know Aya said we shouldn't interfere with whatever it is you're busy with, or whatever youkai hunting you're doing, but it can't hurt to play with Alice when she's lonely, right? Did Aya put you in the Western-styled room?"

"Er, yes..."

"Then let's go! Oh, does Alice speak Japanese? I know Aya said she doesn't talk very much, but maybe she's just shy, right? Anyway, it's not good for children to be so quiet, so..."

-----

Alice took to Miho with a swiftness that kindled odd feelings of possessiveness in Minerva. It did not seem quite fair or natural for the little girl to latch onto someone else other than her self-appointed guardian, but Miho had utterly charmed Alice, and vice versa, within moments of their meeting. Minerva had to stop herself from reaching out to claim her ward. Jealousy was not an attractive trait to display.

True to prediction, Alice's geometry homework was undone; Minerva had allowed herself a knowing smile directed at Alice, which seemed to embarrass the child far more than any scolding would have accomplished. Miho idly browsed through some of the lesson plans Minerva had drawn up, her lips moving silently as she read the unfamiliar languages.

"Isn't this all too much for a child of Alice's age?" she asked. "It's not like you have to teach her everything all at once."

Minerva shrugged. She had endured enough of Miho's bubbly enthusiasm to know that she was far more intelligent than her airy gossip would suggest. Miho was perfectly capable of matching even Aya in erudition; she just chose not to bother with it most of the time. "It helps keep Alice out of trouble," Minerva said. "And she's certainly bright enough. Even so, I suspect the demands on my time will only increase in the immediate future, and I may not be able to spend as much time with Alice as I should." She gave Miho a meaningful look. "If I could find a suitable replacement tutor, however..."

Before Miho could respond to this blatant hint, a quick series of knocks on the door heralded Aya's entrance. For someone who had effectively been dictating terms, Aya looked as though she had been on the receiving end of a particularly intense interrogation.

She did look nonplussed at Miho's presence, particularly when Miho threw her arms around her cousin for a hug.

"I thought I told you that you need not cross paths with Margatroid-san," she said weakly, after they disengaged.

"Exactly," Miho said. "I didn't need to, but I wanted to. Why'd you try to hide our guests from me, Aya? Including this lovely girl?" She ruffled Alice's hair, causing the little girl to duck away in surprise, hands flying up to pat down the mess.

"If... if that is what you wish, then I suppose I have no objection," Aya said. "Your husband is making arrangements with Uncle right now, regarding the disposition of what was discussed during our trip. Or rather, he is driving a hard bargain with Uncle. I suspect this is possibly not one of Uncle's better days."

"I know," Miho said happily. "Ryotarou can be amazing when he gets going. It's why I married him, after all. Oh, Alice, come here for a minute..."

Minerva looked back and forth between the two. They truly could pass as sisters, with Miho being the elder, but acting younger. Where were Aya's parents, though? Was it another of those topics which were carefully danced around in conversation, being no business of ignorant foreigners?

Aya sank into the chair at Minerva's desk. She glanced down, and shifted herself a few more inches away from the large leatherbound tome on the desk, surrounded by notebooks and scraps of paper, scrawled with notations and sketches.

"It's not going to bite, you know," Minerva pointed out.

"So you say," Aya replied blandly. "There are a few matters to report. Uncle is, of course, willing to let you stay in this house as an honoured guest, although you must forgive him if he seems stand-offish. He agrees in principle with your stated goals, but the thought of a Western magician under his roof, with your strange Western and magical ways, is not an easy thing to become accustomed to for a... traditional old man. But there will be no interference, and you will have a patron."

Minerva nodded her thanks.

"We are also building a... I suppose 'shack' is a suitable word, even if it seems overly grandiose for the result. Whatever it is, it will be located behind the mansion, close enough to shuttle back and forth as needed, but far enough away for any unfortunate explosions or fumes to be limited in scope. We will transfer your alchemical equipment to that shack when it is finished in a few more days." Aya held up a delicate finger before Minerva could respond to the verbal jab. "And the Hakurei shrine maiden has consented to a meeting."

"Consented?"

"It is complicated," Aya said, so quickly that it may have been a reflex. "Everything in Gensokyo is complicated. Once again, it is best to see for yourself, rather than speculate through second-hand sources. The meeting will not take place immediately, but the Hakurei shrine maiden has suggested next week as a possibility."

Even second-hand sources would have been better than nothing, Minerva thought sourly. What was it about Gensokyo that made it impossible for people to speak plainly?

The two of them watched Miho and Alice chat animatedly for a moment. Miho did most of the talking, while Alice listened eagerly.

"Little Alice seems to get along well with my cousin," Aya noted.

"Good. Do you know if she will agree to take over Alice's lessons?"

"Quite likely. Miho loves children. Are you seeking a dedicated tutor?"

"A companion," Minerva said. "A babysitter. A nanny. A governess. And yes, a tutor. Someone to take care of Alice when I am not around, and make sure she does not get into trouble. Someone who can replace me if need be."

"Why?"

"Because I'm going to start hunting youkai, and I would much rather Alice remain behind while I do so."

Iced Fairy

  • So like if you try to hurt alkaza
  • *
  • I will set you on fire k'?
  • LOOK AT ME
Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #27 on: June 20, 2011, 05:04:50 pm »
Ah, it's been a while.  I'm pleased to see this bumped again.  It's fun sifting the little gems out of ordinary conversations.
Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #28 on: June 21, 2011, 05:15:58 am »
Indeed it is.

I have...a terrible need...shall I say the word?...of religion. Then I go out at night and paint the stars.

Yayifications

  • Nickname: Unnamed Book-Reading Youkai
Re: And What Alice Found There
« Reply #29 on: July 12, 2011, 03:01:25 pm »
Minerva did not need to find an excuse to leave Alice behind this time. The little girl seemed to be avoiding everyone, although Minerva did not know if she was merely avoiding adults in particular; without any other children of her age to play with, the point was moot.

She had even tried to avoid Minerva, turning her head away and running off whenever Minerva tried to ask what the matter was. While Alice had never been the most talkative of children, now she seemed even more reticent.

It was not a sullen silence, however. Alice seemed to be preoccupied with some weighty matter, rather than any trivial sulk, struggling with a deeply personal problem that she evidently felt no other could ever understand. At a loss, Minerva finally asked Miho for her insights.

"Loose tooth," Miho reported, after a brief session with Alice. Minerva shut down the pang of jealousy slightly too late, but managed to keep it from her expression. "It'll probably come out soon, and I know a few ways to hurry the process otherwise."

Minerva could not see any trace of mischief in Miho's expression, which boded even more ill for Alice's tooth.

"She'll be all right with me, Margatroid-san, and we definitely have enough servants around anyway. Why don't you do... whatever it is that you said you wanted to do?" Miho gave her a critical look. "Which I still think is a bad idea, even if I don't understand most of what you said."

Minerva had to admit to herself that she agreed, even as she made her way through the little-used forest path towards her destination, early the next morning. Aya had been skeptical when Minerva asked for a secluded place a good distance from the village, with a large body of water nearby.

"Why?" Aya had asked bluntly.

"An experiment," Minerva had replied. "There will be some amount of danger, albeit mostly passive, and I'd rather not have to worry about anyone else's safety while I'm working. I can take care of myself, and I highly doubt the experiment will fail in a spectacularly lethal fashion."

"There will be youkai around."

"I know."

Aya had provided her with a map, which apparently concerned itself with artistic merit more than cartographical accuracy; Minerva had gotten the impression that good maps of the geography of Gensokyo outside the village were relatively rare, what with the lack of anything worth mapping in the vicinity. The danger of the youkai was not as pronounced for anyone who travelled in groups, thus making the usual mapmaking team a safe proposition, but there was simply not enough financial incentive to bother.

At least, until the Japanese government reached this remote location in their aggressive drive to modernize. What would come of the clash between the old values of the land and the new technology and habits imported from the rest of the world?

Minerva finally broke through the treeline, dragging her bulky load behind her on a small wagon, and beheld nothing. It was, in fact, a very impressive sort of nothing; the map had called the area a lake of mist, which fit the general description of what lay before her. The mist shrouded everything beyond a few feet, and became particularly dense towards the middle of the lake, hiding whatever lay beyond it from view. There could have been an entire village on an island in there, lost to sight; any ferrymen prowling across the water must be relying on some preternatural sense of direction.

At least this was far enough from any cities of size for the mist to be relatively clean, unlike the famous fog of London. Minerva hesitated to call it natural, however; there was something distinctly unnatural about this mist, from a meteorological perspective.

Setting the wagon down, Minerva quickly made her way over to the water's edge. Summers here were warmer than Minerva was used to, but it was still cool, almost chilly, at this time in the morning. The lake probably did its part to keep temperatures down, even though the mist made it feel like she was walking through a persistent drizzle.

The water was usable enough; no obvious signs of contamination, either physical or spiritual, which meant there was no human settlement nearby, and the river she saw running through the village did not empty out here. It was a pity that Minerva was probably going to leave this place a little more polluted than it was before, but that was the cost of alchemy.

She measured out fifteen paces from the edge of the lake, and marked the spot with a small cairn of pebbles, before heading back to the wagon. It took some time for her to set up the equipment she had brought to her satisfaction, and yet more before she had the Experiment bubbling along nicely.

This was probably not the best place to hold an alchemical project, Minerva reflected. The exertions of hauling buckets of water from the lake had caused her to raise a sweat, and the humidity from the mist did not help. And yet the air remained cool, despite the season. Minerva glanced upwards, but could not see the sun through the clouds covering the sky. What time was it? Close to lunch, possibly, or even on the wrong side of noon, which explained her sudden hunger.

Minerva had finagled a cold sandwich before she set out that day, which lay wrapped up inside a basket on the wagon, a safe distance from the site of the Experiment. By her calculations, she should have plenty of time to take a break, keeping an eye on the Experiment, but not requiring her attention beyond that.

She picked up an empty bucket, and walked towards the lakeside, intending to fill it to wash her hands of alchemical residue before eating. Once there, however, she realized that this was a perfect opportunity to enjoy the crystal-clear waters of the lake, particularly since nobody else was around. Nothing too immodest, of course; simply a little loosening of clothes and rolling up of sleeves, leaving off the capelet and hat, scrubbing off the sweat and grime and chemicals...

It was thus when she was momentarily occupied that she heard a curious voice: "What're you doing?"

A child, Minerva assumed at first, straightening up slowly and turning to face the newcomer. A child, sounding like a child, with what Minerva recognized, in the manner of one who has read about it but never before encountered it in its natural habitat, as childish speech patterns in Japanese. A child, who had somehow managed to make her way through the forest known to be infested with youkai. A child, in a land where not every creature of myth and superstition looked obviously inhuman.

This... youkai, Minerva decided, for no human child could be here alone... was obscured by the mist, letting it surround her apparently without being aware of it,, making her features difficult to discern. Minerva would have estimated her to be a few years younger than Alice, wearing what looked like a simple blue dress. Further details were filtered oddly through some sort of strange veil layered even over the mist, as though someone clouded a darkened glass.

"If you're lost," the little girl said, "it's because of the fairies." She sounded confident, even though she had approached a strange foreign woman performing some strange alchemy beside a foggy lake. Minerva resisted trying to straighten out her clothes, since any movements might well be interpreted as a hostile action. Or maybe not moving at all was offensive, somehow; should she be greeting this youkai with humility? What was the proper protocol in this situation?

"Fairies?" Minerva finally blurted out. It was the closest translation she could remember to the Japanese term, but was it a close enough equivalent? Was there some Japanese version of the standard formalities? Minerva desperately rifled through her memories for the simplest version of a greeting from a human to one of the Fair Folk: the authorized Vatican-approved forms were too complex, Calvinism did not even acknowledge the existence of fairies, and most of the folk greetings amounted to begging for right of passage.

The indistinct shape of the little girl made a movement, which Minerva realized a moment later was the girl thumping a fist against her chest in a show of bravado. "That's right! I'm the strongest of the fairies! And you should be a little more surprised. I'm the sort of enemy you don't want to mess with!"

"I'd rather not be an enemy," Minerva said. She curtsied, lowering her head deeply. "Well met, little lady, and if your goal was to surprise me, then I am glad to inform you that you have succeeded."

The fairy paused. "What? Ah, what's the matter with the mist today? I can't see anything!"

Minerva frowned. "The mist is not your intent?"

"Of course not! Do you think I'd do something like this to myself? You're pretty stupid, aren't you?"

Minerva began to relax; clearly this fairy was not any sort of threat to her, despite all the bluster. Then again, it would hardly do to use her magic against this harmless youkai; Minerva had been trying to find out about what lay within the land of Gensokyo, and a youkai would be a fitting native guide.

The fairy waved an arm in front of her, briefly dispelling the mist. Minerva caught sight of a very human-like arm, attached to a very human-like little girl, before the mist rushed back in. For some reason, this felt even more unnerving than anything Minerva's imagination could have supplied.

"The mist was never this bad before," the fairy complained. "You're not doing something to it, are you? All those tubes and pots and fire over there." She gestured, and the mist parted once again to reveal an imperious finger pointing towards Minerva's alchemical apparatus.

"I assure you, the mist was like this before I came," Minerva said, trying to fight down a chill. Why? This fairy couldn't harm her, not unless Minerva deliberately let her. And Minerva was confident that even in magic-drained England, she could have dealt summarily with the fairy without any trouble.

... Minerva wasn't scared. She was shivering because she was cold. Something was drastically lowering the ambient temperature, and Minerva had a pretty good idea of what it was.

"You're lying," the fairy said authoritatively. "I'll freeze that contraption of yours, and then I'll freeze you!"

"Now hold it!" Minerva snapped, before she could help herself. The chill must be shortening her temper. "That's a delicate experiment, and you have no right to ruin it! Besides, it doesn't have anything to do with this mist."

"Talking is useless!" the fairy crowed, apparently enjoying Minerva's discomfiture. "If I say you're to blame, then you're to blame! Prepare yourself!"

Minerva sighed with exasperation, her breath puffing in the cold air briefly before the clouds joined the surrounding mist. The air around the gently bubbling Experiment seemed to crystallize, tiny ice particles refracting the light. Was that what caused the odd effect around the fairy? This particular fairy seemed to control the element of ice; Minerva wondered if this was just a fancier way of controlling heat, which was an actual form of energy, even if it was not as mystically impressive.

The little oil-powered flame, which had dwindled down to a tiny point of light as the fairy lowered the temperature, suddenly burst forth with renewed ferocity. The fairy stumbled back with a startled yelp, but quickly recovered, to her credit. "Hey!"

"Sator arepo tenet opera rotas," Minerva said, crossing her arms. "Have you learned your lesson now?"

"W-well, as long as you don't make any more trouble," the fairy said, falling back on her confident belief that she could never be defeated, and this was merely a temporary parley. "What's that you're cooking anyway? It doesn't look very tasty."

The Experiment had not borne the interference well, and the results were now congealing messily into a dark red mass at the bottom of the alembic. Occasionally a blob floated up on some warm current, only to slowly settle back down as it cooled.

"It is not for eating," Minerva said firmly, as she put out the flame. The fairy seemed relieved at this. "What do you usually eat, anyway? Your kind, I mean."

"My kind?"

"I mean fairies."

From the fairy's posture, Minerva may as well have asked her to identify Cromwell's favourite horse. "What are you talking about?" the fairy demanded. "Fairies eat food. You really are stupid, if you didn't know that."

Any chance of getting this fairy to enlighten Minerva on the socio-political situation in Gensokyo from the youkai perspective was rapidly diminishing. "Do you have a leader, then? Someone you all look up to? Or someone who gives you orders?"

"I don't need anybody to tell me what to do!" the fairy said hotly.

So much for information-gathering. "Do you know anything at all?" Minerva said wearily.

"Of course!" the fairy said instantly, still with that useless confidence. "Ask me anything, and I'll know the answer!"

"Very well. Why is a raven like a writing-desk?"

A brief silence, broken only by a gentle gloop from the alchemical apparatus.

"T-that's easy," the fairy said, not quite able to keep the uncertainty from her voice. "In fact, it's so easy that I don't need to tell you the answer."

Despite herself, Minerva hid a smile. There was something oddly endearing about the way the little fairy tried to seem so strong and fearless. "You're right. There's no need to answer." Minerva raised a menacing hand, palm out, towards the fairy, trying to ignore the effect the cold had on her damp clothes. "Now, if there was anything else...?"

"I'll let you off for now," the fairy said hastily. "Don't come here again, or you'll regret it!"

It took a moment to realize that the fairy had left the area, her retreat masked by the mist. Which seemed to be clearing up, albeit not as quickly as Minerva would have found convenient. Had the fairy influenced the mist's behaviour around this place? She didn't seem to be aware of it, but perhaps her very presence resulted in some sort of odd atmospheric reaction.

The fairy hadn't been especially difficult to deal with, Minerva realized. The cold was certainly uncomfortable, and Minerva was shivering slightly even now, but if the fairy was representative of the youkai in Gensokyo, the humans should have been able to handle the problem without too many issues.

Hardly the sort of doomed situation that would require Minerva's skills, commissioned by the mysterious Violet Hearn. Why save humans from the monsters, when the humans could save themselves?

Minerva pondered the risks of underestimating her foes, as she dismantled the Experiment. It was not quite a complete failure, since at least now she knew what parameters to set before starting the next trial, apart from making sure no youkai interfered.

By the time she was done, the late afternoon sun finally managed to peek through the clouds, burning away some of the mist. Minerva still could not see more than a few meters past the shore of the lake, but at least she wasn't groping through a world of blurred silhouettes. She had tried to clean up after herself as best as she could, but she had accidentally spilled some residue, and she felt a little guilty about that bare patch where the grass had sublimated. Well, everything would grow back eventually, and perhaps in a few decades someone would make an interesting discovery, even if the tiny amount that was spilled would not actually be all that valuable.

Fairies. Gensokyo had fairies, and at least some of them controlled the elements. Aya's little guidebook hadn't mentioned that ability, or that they looked like human children. Yet another correction for the next edition, Minerva supposed.

The Gensokyo Chronicles had also stated how fairies preferred to avoid being seen by humans, which suited their habit of playing pranks. And yet that silly fairy had boldly approached Minerva, making a spectacle of herself, just when Minerva had been washing up in consideration of lunch.

... a lunch she hadn't actually had, come to think of it. Minerva grew puzzled, as she approached the wagon. She definitely hadn't had lunch, so why was the basket containing the sandwich opened?

A brief investigation was all it took to transform her confusion into annoyance and grudging admiration, as well as reveal the contents of the basket to be a piece of cloth previously used to wrap a sandwich, and a few scattered crumbs.

Perhaps the fairy hadn't been entirely silly, after all.

 

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