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    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
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    Demimondaine

    In prehistoric times, when oldfags walked the Earth, I dared Kirby to write a KnK AU where Mikiya didn't miss his breakfast appointment with Fujino in MSP3. That turned into Linger, and if you're looking for a story in which things actually happen, close the tab and go read that instead. Now, at long last, it's time for the counter-attack to begin. It's time for overwritten prose, pretentious references and bloated paragraphs. It's time for walls of text. Kirby dared me to either write an EMIYA story or a Touko story set around the time of MSP1. This...is just one of those. By which I mean to say that it's the second of those.

    Quote Originally Posted by Contents
    -i/Our Lady of Reien

    -1/I, Mephistopheles

    0/Season of Migration to the West

    i/The mouse that roared.

    1/Snake and Scorpion

    -2-i/The Art of Vivisection in the Age of Thaumaturgical Reproduction

    2+i/Asymptotic

    [TO BE CONTINUED...]
    ------------------------------------------------------------

    Demimondaine

    This work of art had been the supreme effort of his life. Now that he had finished it his heart was drained of emotion. The two figures remained still for some time. Then Seikichi's low, hoarse voice echoed quaveringly from the walls of the room:

    "To make you truly beautiful I have poured my soul into this tattoo. Today there is no woman in Japan to compare with you. Your old fears are gone. All men will be your victims."

    Tanizaki Jun'ichirou, The Tattooer (1910)



    -i/Our Lady of Reien

    I think it was around twelve years ago that she picked up that nickname. Middle school. Age thirteen, thereabouts. You know how kids are.

    On second thought, let me clarify that. It gives entirely the wrong impression otherwise.

    So I hear: kids are cruel. If I'm not mistaken, that's the station most people will find their train of thought arriving at about now. And on its platform? Name-calling. Nasty appellations. Stand around and sneer, tease her till she cries...all that is depressingly childish and/or childishly depressing. This is the simple way to understand it. It is intuitive, it is straightforward, and it is wrong. Again, from the top. Query. Are kids cruel? There is an argument to made for it, but it is one that annoys me in its subjectivity, and the inescapably plaintive tinge of long-buried ressentiment on the part of those who make it. It annoys me like a spider crawling across the bathroom floor. It's not harming anyone, not directly, and to certain eyes it has qualities worthy of appreciation, or preserving in formaldehyde at the very least, but nevertheless I still want to kill it for my own piece of mind. And I would do so by exchanging one qualifier for another. Kids are...what?

    Kids are unimaginative.

    Oh, don't start. I know the spiel. The apocryphally boundless imaginative powers of Bright Young Things, prior to their being hemmed into the dehumanising maw of post-industrial society. Apocryphal indeed they are; I've certainly never encountered them. Ho-hum. Shall we be frank? Children by and large are ignorant and cretinously so; moreover, their ignorance is such that they are ignorant of their own ignorance, which is never an advisable state of affairs. What ideas they have tend overwhelmingly to be bad ones, or at the very least ill-considered. But not malicious, I wouldn't say. Not intrinsically. Where they are, that is incidental. Cruelty proper is beyond them; children at their worst are simply thoughtless. The truly cruel among us are without exception adults who know exactly what they're doing.

    Anyway.

    What I mean to say is that the nickname I refer to was not one of those...nasty little dogtags hung around one's neck (all the better to garotte you with, my dear) by others to mock or deride. It started that way, sure; that I can say with near certainty. I don't know the specifics, nor the identity of the originator, and I rather suspect for those who did know that it's sunk down to those horrible benthic regions of reminiscence which surface only to protract the torment of the chronically sleep-deprived. But – there was, without question, a time when her classmates might have been able to half-smile, half-smirk as they spat it down the hallway after her. That I know for a fact. I saw it happen once or twice. Yet it didn't last, and therein lies the rub.

    First, there came about a problem of overuse. Sort of a natural law regarding these things. A population dynamic. Nicknames don't just congeal from leftover cruelty, malice and will to dominate all life found in the girls' shower rooms. They are, rather, begat. Once begotten, soon forgotten – usually. I'll come to that. At any rate, they're a clique thing. They are produced within a clique for use among members of said clique, in reference to – and this is important – someone or some group not included in said clique. Having observed cliques in their natural habitat, I can tell you that the longest-lived ones tend to be small relative to the total population. The explanation for that lies very far down the evolutionary psychology rabbit-hole, so I only bring it up to make a point of how far her case fell outside the norm. It wasn't as if the nickname spread outside the clique; rather, it was more like the clique itself expanded to include nearly the entire school. An entire student body united against her, the world's smallest oppressed minority.

    Now, that – that doesn't happen in real life, surely? All the more so when the girl in question hadn't even done anything, not really. And yet it happened. Very quickly, too, like a kind of catalytic change, a phase transition. Supercooled water flash-freezing at the first disturbance. Perhaps it is too uncharitable to say that, structurally, the student body at the time needed someone to fill that role. Or perhaps not. The eighties were a strange time, for this country more than anywhere else. Too much money concentrated in a small area starts eating away at reality. Consequences get pretty dire. People go credit simple. Start investing dangerously, snarling at the furniture, miscegenating with the Deep Ones down Innsmouth way. Call it zeitgeist, then. Trickle-down insanity. Facts are, it happened like that. Now I must say that mine was – and still is, I hear – a classy school, so it's not as if she had her seat stolen, her bag filled with expanded alaria, or was doused in kerosene and set on fire. The student body considered itself above such things, which were in any case terribly lumpen-proletariat methods of bullying people. They had the nickname instead. That was what it was for.

    So, you see, it fell into overuse as a natural consequence of expansion. Like imperial overstretch; to conquer more than one can rule...it simply became too popular for its own good. Repeated usage wore away the initial intent, ground it off like so much sandpaper, down to a kind of rounded, polished formlessness. Meaninglessness. Neutrality, at any rate. Repeat a word to yourself for long enough and it loses all that which separated it from a simple string of syllables; we here find something similar, add a layer of abstraction. As they used it over and over, a kind of absurdity crept in on the part of the name-callers, and they became self-conscious of that absurdity. Self-consciousness in any form is the mind-killer, pure and simple; if you try with all your might to breathe on purpose, every inhalation and exhalation deliberate, you'll soon discover the dubious pleasures of asphyxiation. (Overrated, I'll tell you that much.) As below, so above: the insult broke down inside their heads. The original intent went up in smoke. But the name remained. And I do think that if you'd asked whoever it was that actually first came up with it why that was the case, they would – with a mounting sense of horror and dawning comprehension – realise that they had absolutely no idea. Bullying would be as far from their minds as Brazil, Bermuda or Burkina Faso.

    And yet, it stuck.

    In fact, to say that it simply stuck is criminally insufficient. It bonded. It adhered. It cured, like drying cement. You might have thought that a nickname so kitsch couldn't possibly endure continued exposure to the evanescent, effervescent, efflorescent subculture characteristic to pubescent daughters of the uppermost of crusts, and predicted the usual turnover rate of malicious nomenclature to hew it down within the year like so many acres of Amazonian forest. What happened instead defied all sane expectation. An onomastic event horizon formed around her – a border which no other appellation could traverse and survive. Oh, others were tried, make no mistake. They came and went, but could never go the distance. Time was when her accent – the dulcet and refined tones of the old capital, which stood out by miles whenever she was called up to read something in front of a room full of feckless Edokko furnished by our school's relative proximity to the old Tokugawa power centre – induced one or two of those giggling back-of-the-classroom types to start calling her 'Miss Kyoto' under their breath. A week later, they'd forgotten they ever had. It couldn't sustain itself. It passed irretrievably beyond the event horizon, and got crushed into a singularity for its trouble. That was just one. I don't recall many, but my personal favourite, the one which deserves a prize for creativity, came in her first year of high school. From above, as all the best do.

    Imagine, if you will, a group of seniors – wealth, refinement, wealth, grace, pedigree, wealth, flowering Japanese womanhood, wealth, stupidity and so on – whose primary extracurricular interest was in scheming ludicrously advanced schemes to sneak out at night and meet their boyfriends. Imagination past that is unnecessary: this really happened. Despite what some suspect, strict all-girls schools of the 1980s actually exhibited selection pressures in favour of a highly idiosyncratic species of flaming heterosexual, who usually came into their own in senior year. They formed a tight-knit collective of hormone-addled escape artists: not too intelligent, if truth be told, but blessed with enough cunning and audacity to keep you from finding out until it was too late. They were fearless, competitive and anti-authoritarian to a fault. Their motto? Go hard or go homo. A stark choice, but motivation enough for a teenage mind sufficiently lacking in genuine innocence. To put 'ludicrously advanced' in perspective, I recall a relatively mid-level stratagem involved memorising the Sisters' patrol patterns, disguising oneself as a pot plant (No specifics. I've been sworn to secrecy. Papier-mâché was involved. It's no longer possible, anyway; they moved the ferns outside in my senior year. One rather suspects some verminous quisling leaked information to the Mother Superior.) until out of the dorms, using a broom to conceal one's footprints on the way through the grounds, exfiltrating the school through a concealed hole in the perimeter fence, and doing it all in reverse a few hours later. They were a febrile, puellile lot, subverting the designs of the anile in their reckless pursuit of the puerile.

    But in their downtime, so to speak, these selfsame seniors made use of their clandestinemethods of contact with the fabled Outside World (Getting homesick at boarding school is for the middle-class. Up in the hills, the dormitories formed a Platonic cave, where rich girls caught solipsism instead. Alas, the tale of Shiraiwa Yoh's legendary refusal to believe that her roommate was self-aware until graduation can be contained by no parentheses yet printed) to have subtitled Hollywood films smuggled in. These films they would then watch at night in the Film Research Clubroom with chocolate, great surreptition and the sound down low. Among these was the classic 1971 thriller Klute, and in watching it one or several of them came to the realisation that one of their juniors, you know who, had the exact same 'look' – allegedly one of those compound terms that defy definition, but in practice it meant hairstyle and nothing more: the famous and aptly-named 'Klute shag' ubiquitous among gamine types in the preceding decade – as Jane Fonda's starring role. This was riotously amusing, they decided, and thus, overnight, more than a few senior girls began calling their chronically-nicknamed underclassman 'Fonda'. A cut above the usual playground fare to be sure, and to be expected – we are talking about future Lady Macbeths here, cooing black-widow types who'll later henpeck their once-idealistic politician husbands through the sordid corridors of power with sociopathic abandon between shopping trips at Issey Miyake and coffee with the Girls. Sasuga. Mind you, I think the effect was rather lost on the victim, since she never saw the movie and thus couldn't make the connection.

    That was the best of them, but it lasted a little over a fortnight. It couldn't stand up to the original. By the time she herself was a senior, that nickname of hers had all but entirely supplanted her real name, even among some of the younger faculty. Everyone knew it. Everyone used it. Even girls in different classes who'd never even met her. Even girls in the middle school, an entirely distinct area of the campus. Even returnee students, some of whom had spent the preceding near-decade of their education separated from our humble Academe by multiple continent-widths, somehow seemed to repatriate already in the loop. Had she been held back a year, it would have ended up on the seating lists. Another, and it'd be on her diploma. It wasn't cruel. It wasn't kind. It was just...there. It was just what we called her.

    'Freckles.'

    Just imagine the derivation. Three guesses, and the first two don't count. We – and this is not the exculpatory, indefinite 'we'; I was the same age, in the same year (different class) and I used it too on the rare occasions there was cause to – we called her Freckles. Why? Because she had freckles. Freckles as they are generally understood, even: a distinctive smattering of small blemishes that populated her nose and cheeks, and nowhere else. In and of itself, indicative of...what, exactly? Being myself an expert on the human body almost without living equal, I could gladly outline to you to the process of freckle formation, as well as a laundry list of potential causes broken down by distribution and the present state of experimental evidence for or against – but what's the use? It didn't matter why she had them. She simply did, which was her first mistake.

    Kids aren't cruel, but they have no sense of proportion. This distinguished country of ours has brought forth a variegated progression of beauty ideals in its time – and how times do change; you're not likely to find any girls in the modern day hankering after the plump cheeks, black teeth and heel-length hair of a Heian princess, for example – but I speak with fair confidence that none of them has had room for freckles. In practical terms, averaged over one's entire life, I think this amounts to very little: a measurable downturn in the likelihood of one's appearance on magazine covers, say. But to children? Nothing short of a disfigurement. While we are fortunate to live in an enlightened age in which lepers are no longer shunned and confined to colonies on the outskirts of town, and machete-fueled ethnic pogroms are considered a rip-snorting weekend's entertainment by only thirty...alright, maybe forty percent of the world population – a minority at any rate – I must say that middle school affords one a very interesting Petri dish in which to examine how the micro-sociology of either might work in practice.

    Or maybe I'm being too harsh. As I said, children are never inherently cruel. At the very least, the matter of the freckles was considered a 'big deal'. Arguably, it came to be considered an even bigger deal as the usage of that nickname proliferated. To many – to the majority, by a wide margin – 'Freckles' was the only thing known and worth knowing about her. To my dubious credit, I know several other things about her in addition to that. She was an artistic type, and there is a plausible-sounding argument to the effect that our school's notability for its visual-arts curriculum is the reason why she came all the way from Kyoto to attend, passing over numerous more proximate establishments just as eager to take her parents' money. Secondly, she was actually talented, which God knows does have to be qualified separately from simply being artistic. Thirdly, she-

    She...

    ...

    ...never mind.

    Now.

    Re-reading what is above, I'm still not quite settled on the purpose of these paragraphs. It's not a confession. Nor is it a lengthy, idle digression to pass the time. I don't do those, either of them. I cannot really stomach it as an excuse, since I don't particularly feel like I have anything that needs excusing. At length, I suppose I'll have to let it be nothing more than an explanation. The necessary background. Not addressed to anyone in particular, but to myself, above all. To explain myself to myself. To articulate, in precise form, the reason for my present circumstances.

    Ah, where to begin. With Kyoto, perhaps? City of ten thousand stories, of which this is just one...what a wretched old cliché that is. Euthanasia, please. Put it to rest. A city is nothing more than a machine for generating stories, most of which are (a) redundant and (b) uninteresting. Kyoto's no different. But every so often, some unthinkable assemblage within that machine sees fit to knit together two plot threads with no real relation for its own inscrutable designs. It is not fate. Calling it 'fate' would undeservedly dignify the phenomenon. It is just something – one only understands later, of course – that through some accident one neglected to avoid. Consequences vary. In this case? Hellish.

    It has been years – no exaggeration – since our paths last crossed. Six, seven maybe. I haven't the mind for calculation at the moment. Not since graduation, put it there. Like every other pair of girls who promised friends-forever on that day and never saw one another again, we two – who were never friends, and made no such promises – were surely utter non-entities to each other by the time the diplomas were all handed out. It has thus been many moons since the enigmatic character of Freckles has even so much as skittered across the surface of my mind, like a water droplet Leidenfrosting its way over a frying pan. Those years have been much occupied with many other things in many other far-off places. And now that I have returned to Japan, who else should I meet but...

    Yes, here she is. What a pretty pass things have come to. August, 1995 – I met her. Again. Today, in fact; Friday the eleventh. Not a handful of hours prior to the present tense of this narration. It was at an open exhibition at an art gallery in Kyoto. I wandered in out of boredom, out of pure chance. Accidental sighting, delayed recognition. A conversation in halts and starts. And an invitation to dinner. She'd pay. That was the only real enticement. Seduction through the stomach? Hardly. It pays more to simply be a cheapskate. Beyond that I couldn't tell you why I accepted. She sits across from me, at this very moment. Just the same as she was. Freckles and all. I don't think she's even grown. Now, is this not quaint, we may ask? Is this not cliché? Do our eyelids not grow heavy at the thought? Schoolmates meet after a long absence, à la recherche du temps perdu? Nostalgia, memory, sadness, love, fate, mourning one's lost innocence, the impermanence of all things – have we not a veritable thematic laundry list along which every possible permutation of this conversation has been laundered to gleaming white colourless blandness?

    I've no time for that bullshit. I have completely and utterly forgotten her name.

    * * * *
    -1/I, Mephistopheles

    Hold still a moment. Let me tell you a story. Let me be your goddess – your evil demon, summe potens et callidus. Let me take you back in time, because this requires some further explanation.

    A long flight ago, in a restaurant far, far away, much more agreeable than this one atmospherically and noticeably devoid of Freckles, there sat two people, the only customers that evening. It was an exceptionally soft and rose-painted twilight, pleasantly warm and certainly far more than the Eternal City deserved. The restaurant was small, barely large enough to seat thirty at most, but richly furnished and lit well enough to make the most of it. Golden-glowing incandescents concealed in chandeliers. Wood-panelled walls, white tablecloths, handsome Jewish boys to wait the table – a charming little eatery in the old Roman ghetto. One of the diners was, naturally, myself. I'm no Dostoevsky narrator; first-person means it happened to me, and there'll be no describing in detail the content of other people's hallucinations or whatever. Speculation, maybe, but that's as far as it'll go. God only knows the kind of lengthy internal monologues people could be having while I'm describing the furniture. They're probably extremely boring, but one never can tell. Such a shame. Alas, I am but one woman.

    Anyway, the other diner was Doctor Faustus.

    Fear not for copyright. Nor for other accusations of plagiarism. It's a pseudonym. For reasons of security – his, not mine – details concerning his identity must be withheld. We'll be calling him Doctor Faustus in lieu of his real name, largely because it amuses me. No three-pipe problem this: it is assuredly in no way symbolic, and I've further made sure you can't deduce anything from it about his true name, ethnicity, nationality and what-have-you. In fact, even the male pronouns I'll be using to refer to him have only a fifty-percent chance of being accurate. Let me establish the one true and knowable thing about this character: that they are an agent of the Church. That which was upon Peter built – you know the one. Not from its public face; I've no need of their services, literally or figuratively. From the other side. And even then, it is a very certain subspecies among men of the cloth from whom one might end up owing favours to a Magus.

    “How are you finding the artichokes?” he said, nervously making every possible attempt to talk about something other than the matter at hand. There had been some conversation before this, but it was uninteresting, so I've omitted it. This was where we got down to business.

    “It's not too hard. I just look, and they're there.”

    “No, I mean, how do they, ah...”

    “How do they what? Taste? They've no tongues, Doctor. It would be quite,” I remember I skewered a leaf to punctuate that sentence, making a nice, meaty sound, “unnatural.”

    “No...” he groaned, “...I mean, to say, do you like them?”

    “Like what?”

    “The artichokes,” spluttered he, “Aozaki.”

    “What about them?”

    He gritted his teeth.

    Do. You. Enjoy. Partaking. In. Th-

    “They're crunchy.”

    “Cru-” Seemed like he was about to pop a blood vessel in his head for a moment there, but I recall a quick recovery. “C-Crunchy,” he repeated almost absently, as if someone had suddenly popped the balloon in his head. “Yes, well...you would, ah, expect...deep-fried...crunchy. Yes.”

    “They're good.”

    “Aren't they just?” In a second he turned exuberant. A man after his own artichokes. “If you'd come here in the spring, you'd have been in for a real treat. Primo artichoke season. They get them in from down the coast.” How proud he sounded. Makes one wonder if he's invested in some land out there.

    “Some other time, perhaps.”

    I lowered my fork then. Looked at him. Rubbing hands together, trembling slightly, all that. Don't misunderstand; carciofi alla giudìa were and do remain about the only good reason to visit Rome, which I have always liked the least out of the great European capitals. The much-vaunted eternity leaves me cold, and it never fails to give the impression of a vast and elaborate movie set just after filming has wrapped up – the show is over, but the cast and crew still linger, not quite ready to start packing everything away. Allegedly there is a certain romance to it – it would be only etymologically appropriate – but if so, it eludes me. Lovers on mopeds, gelato by the Tiber, a montage of fountains and statues and stairways set to something upbeat, synthesised and offensively European...no, not for me. You want to see the glories of the old Empire, bus yourself down to Pompeii to look at the lewd graffiti and fast-food stalls, preserved in full flower by the scathing breath of Vulcan himself. Up here, it's all just traffic and stale cigarettes and the baleful eyes of dead Popes and Julio-Claudians. There is too much history here – history like a smothering blanket, beneath which these poor present-day Romans scuttle like frenzied rats before ultimately suffocating to death.

    Incidentally, for all that's said about the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the floor in there looks like it was tiled by a five-year-old. You can really tell where the money went. At any rate, the time had then come to extract from him what needed extraction, so the carciofi had to wait.

    “See here, you. I want you to drop the Basil Fawlty act. Right now. This kind of neurotic state doesn't become you at all. I'm sure this isn't how you carry on in-”

    At the time I did complete that sentence, but here I cannot, as it reveals exactly what part of the Church's organisational labyrinth he occupies. Suffice to say – as you may have surmised – he isn't one of those pyre-stoker types they send out to sharpen knives at anything which so much as looks at a crucifix halfway demoniacally. If he was, we would not have been having this meeting. As it happens, the Church entertains the salaries of many people who do not engage themselves in kicking down doors and immolating vampires – more sedentary, intellectual characters if you catch my meaning. The former, by and large, don't make for interesting conversation or indeed conversation at all; they are trained to survive in the desert for forty days and nights on nothing but faith and the anticipation of violence, which rather stunts their ability to enjoy romantic dinners for two by the Tiber. Mind you, the latter are similarly deficient, but all they do is squirm uncomfortably, which is far more amusing than having a Black Key rammed through each of your eye-sockets before they even bring out the menus. Now, let me pick up my lines again.

    “You know I'm currently the least of your problems as far as threats to your personal safety are concerned.”

    There was a pause there, a breve rest in the score of our conversation.

    “I know what you are,” he mumbled.

    “Do you really.” No question mark necessary: no rising inflection to indicate. “Well, fantastic. Makes two of us. I do so enjoy being able to converse as an equal.” He flinched. Delightful. I hid my expression by double-checking the ward around the table. Runestone hidden under a napkin. Sound-deadening. Nothing serious, but we wouldn't want the waiters overhearing something. “But I don't consider myself a particularly scary person, Doctor.”

    You know something? I honestly think, if I'd had my glasses on when I said that, he might have even thought I was telling the truth. A man of faith is like a widow picking out bridal gowns...hope triumphs over experience.

    On second thought, perhaps not. He really does hate me.

    “That you're human at all is news to me.”

    I did have to cut short another smile there. I remember it took great effort. Oh, if only he knew.

    “Ah, eliminationist rhetoric. The churchman speaks his mind. And in the best possible place, too. Is it not the papal bull of 1555, Cum nimis absurdum, we have to thank for this very ghetto?” Now that skewered him. Debating the faithful is often quite simple; once you've said something in Latin, they either have to call in Latin or raise to Koine or Aramaic or whatever, and if they don't do that quickly, you go in for the kill. I think I said something like this: “Think of it as it was back then. The Jews of Rome, walled off; forced into poverty and squalor and disease...forced to wear bits of yellow cloth, even; now there's a familiar tune. Not a pogrom, nothing so sudden, but a slow, exquisitely torturous kind of killing, exacted over centuries and generations. Can you in good conscience tell me anything I've done compares to that? There are orders and orders of magnitude between my humble self and your venerable old ecclesia.”

    “You're very eloquent, but still a monster.”

    “I'm a humanist. A real Renaissance woman, I've heard it said. And surely you know how Leonardo et al. dissected corpses for their studies.”

    “Corpses, yes. Corpses.”

    “You're doing a very poor job of articulating your complaint, if you have one at all. Surely you've me to thank for your current position? It's not very charitable to take issue after the fact with the method by whi-”

    “The moment, the moment you...I should have reported you to-”

    “No. You really shouldn't have. Quite fortunately, you didn't. You know exactly whose head would be first to roll if the Torquemadas caught wind. Not so forgiving after all, are they? Not when it comes to the...truly...important things. Cutting those kinds of deals with foreign Magi is really not done, as I recall.”

    At that point, he buried his face in his hands. That may have been a bit harsh of me. Or maybe not; religious types, I find, are more stubborn than the average person. You have to chisel your wants onto a stone tablet to get anything done.

    “...What do you want?”

    “You to cheer up, first of all. The waiters will notice. This behaviour is quite unseemly for sundown dining with a beautiful redhead.”

    “Beauty's skin-deep.” He did mean to insult me there, I think, but I wonder if he knew at the time that it could be taken as a back-handed compliment? I suspect not. It may have occurred to him later. God, imagine that. Probably had him waking up screaming in the middle of the night, covered in sweat at the thought of accidentally ingratiating himself. Ah, what's to be said? Celibacy does strange things to people.

    “Believe me, I know. But see here.” I tapped my finger on the table for emphasis. “All I want is one last thing before I set you free.”

    That got his attention. Eyes glanced up.

    “You mean...”

    “Yes, this is the end. Assist me here and now, and our paths will never cross again.”

    “...is that right?” He suspected me, sure. On principle more than anything else. His memory is superb – part of the reason I came to find him – so it certainly wasn't from experience. I am extremely careful to keep my word to the letter whenever I need to blackmail someone; it really is a business where establishing trust is key. Thus it was clear to me that his suspicion was more of a performance than a reality. He needed to play at being suspicious of me in order to prove to himself that he was a good person, or at least a person who didn't trust me, as far as he could distinguish the two. In reality, despite his best efforts, he did and does trust me.

    Because he has to.

    “Don't demean our relationship by insisting on a self-geas scroll. We're friends, aren't we? Bosom buddies. Partners in crime.

    I noted a bead of sweat developing on his forehead.

    “We are not.”

    “You disappoint-” An exaggerated sigh. “-but never surprise. Not to worry, I'll get one out later. We'll sign in blood, whatever you want. Though I myself don't see the need. For reasons which are, if nothing else, profoundly...unreasonable...it is in fact fairly unlikely that I'll so much as set foot in Europe for the remaining term of your natural life.”

    A blink. Then he hastily commissioned a smile, which began construction on his face over the next few seconds and was completed right on schedule. Savage glee. Clapped his hands together and all but chortled.

    “Oh-ho-ho!” Then, by God, he went and actually chortled. No subtlety, these people. “You've gone and done it, have you? Got yourself marked for Sealing, eh? Hah! Oh, heaven. Oh, irony. It's no less than you deserve, of course-”

    “Really, now. I'm blushing.”

    “-and now you're skipping the continent, I assume, to ensconce yourself in some dark corner of the earth. Am I wrong?”

    “You're trying your best.” I smiled at him then. That seemed to crush his momentarily high spirits. “Nothing is official yet. But I can feel it coming. I know the signs, and I've seen the writing on the wall.”

    “I could care less. How long do you have before their jackals come knocking with a jar of formaldehyde made just for you?”

    I shrugged.

    “Bureaucracy in London is the same as it is anywhere. A motion for Sealing Designation needs to get past the peer-review board before it even lands on Barthomeloi's secretary's desk. The only way that's getting done within the month is if one of the department heads takes a personal interest, in which case they'll step in and expedite it. To the best of my knowledge, which is very good indeed, I'm not considered important enough for that to happen-”

    “And what a blow to your Magus pride that must be. I'm sure they'd make just such an exception for your si-”

    “Heads may yet roll, Doctor, and I can be out of Rome faster than you. I suggest you think of the Torquemadas next time you have something clever to say.”

    He recoiled, as if stung. Quite the faux pas, Faustus. I thought you were above that.

    Then again, I do bring out the worst in him. It's the only way I can do business.

    “At any rate,” he began again, sullenly, “I don't see what role I have to play in all this.”

    “I told you. I need your assistance.”

    “You need professional help, that's what...I don't see why. I can't hide you. I can't move you. I'm not a people-smuggler, Aozaki.”

    “You aren't?” I said. “Ah, but of course; were I truly Leonardo, you'd have preferred to be a corpse-smuggler instead...”

    I confess: that was very deliberately calculated to get under his skin. No apologies will be made. It definitely helps having certain insights into his character which (by definition) no-one else living can possibly have. I think saw him twitch, slightly. He had begun holding his cutlery very tightly indeed. The knife in particular. I watched him begin sawing into another deep-fried artichoke, the words 'displaced aggression' silent on my lips.

    “You are sick,” he muttered, voice like an old door creaking at the cautious touch of an axe-murderer. “You are depraved. You are the most heartless, wretched-”

    “Information,” I said, effecting a convenient stillbirth of that sentence. “Information is what I want. Information I'm sure you have. How well do you recall your time in Japan?”

    He paused. There was a very detectable sense of some opening being wrenched shut. Like a ocean-liner's bulkhead being closed against the influx brought by a hull breach. Still; recall the Titanic, dear Faustus...

    Exceedingly well. That was before I met you. The memories are positively rose-tinted.”

    “Bullshit. You thought it was the end of earth as far as appointments went, and you hated every minute of it.”

    “Incorrect. The food I liked. Besides, true hatred must be taught, and I was then yet...unschooled.”

    “Wasted in the seminary, weren't you? A drama queen of your calibre belongs on stage.”

    “Get to the point, would you?”

    “Gladly. I'm heading back there. It's to be my 'dark corner of the earth', as you put it.”

    His eyes narrowed.

    “London has a presence there.”

    “London has two affiliate Second Owners who barely put a toe outside their own little reservations on the best of days. In an entire country. Their 'presence' is indistinguishable from the surrounding atmosphere.”

    “To think you could have been one of the-”

    Honestly, I'm not sure why he didn't finish that sentence. My face may have been doing something. Involuntarily, mind. Involuntarily.

    Doctor Faustus cleared his throat.

    “Clearly, you won't be moving in with either.”

    “Clearly. What I want is, naturally...to continue my work.” He gave me a disgusted look, which I thoroughly enjoyed. You really must savour those when they come. Like snowflakes, they're fleeting and unique. Had I the time to do the R&D myself, I'd find a way to tear them off – perhaps it'd take the entire face, who knows – and pin them up on a cork-board somewhere, like preserved insects. “Which is to say I need a workshop, and a workshop needs a location. You kept contact with some of the native practitioners back then, didn't you?”

    “Some. Where necessary. And possible.”

    “I need someone who knows the lay of the land. Or, rather, the Ley of the land. Someone...well, trustworthy is a bit much to ask for, but...discreet, at least. Professional. Someone who can help me identify and obtain a bit of choice spiritual territory where I can set up shop and work in peace.”

    That got me a sneer. Now, those you can toss out. Dime a dozen. Worthless.

    “You want a real-estate agent.”

    “You know what? Yeah. I do.”

    “A magical real-estate agent.”

    “Considering how the property market has been going since the crash, they're probably the only kind left in business over there.”

    “Hmph. Well.” He sighed, leant back in his chair, and wiped his hands on a napkin. They weren't dirty. “You've never had dealings with anyone of the Oriental traditions, have you?”

    “No. I was given to believe they disdain contact with Westernising degenerates such as myself.”

    Understandably.”

    “Sorry, what was that?” At that point, I think, I had begun eating my carciofi again. Only one to go, anyway. I know I stopped earlier to get down to business, but what can I say? Can't just leave them. They're supposed to be eaten warm. “Didn't hear. Artichokes too crunchy.”

    A pause.

    “What I mean, Aozaki,” he said finally, “is that you are not quite on the mark. In truth, they tend not to interact at all outside their own families, and maybe within patronage networks, the few that haven't yet fallen apart. It's a very insular system out there, quite different to what you're used to in Europe. Very little of this constant jockeying for status. Japanese Magi tend to just...ignore one another as best they can.”

    “Why?”

    “Complicated historical reasons. Do the research yourself. At any rate, it's part of the reason London's enclaves have survived this long.”

    “Sounds-” Pause to swallow carciofi. “-delightful. All the more reason to 'ensconce' myself among them.”

    “It's not a question of 'ensconcing'. It's a problem of finding someone who's willing to talk to you at all.”

    “I'll ingratiate myself. Give me a letter of introduction, why don't you?”

    “It won't count for much.”

    “It will count for more than nothing.”

    “God as my witness, I will not be yours.

    “I am afraid, Doctor Faustus, that you will be whatever I want you to be. I expect a glowing hagiography out of you. I know you can write them. Now, chin up. And remember: it's just one last thing.”

    “This is clearly one additional thing...” he muttered.

    “Really? It's far from clear for me. But this is all beside the point. Do you have anyone in mind, or must I ask elsewhere, and call in this favour another day?”

    Now that he didn't want at all. Wasn't having it. There was a pause. Kind of a soundless chugging, grinding noise as the gears started turning in his head; a sign that he was actually putting effort into solving this problem. He rubbed his eyes, then drew down the hand to his jaw. One of those strange little gestures. See it a lot on people who are sleep-deprived, or otherwise utterly twisted on some disreputable chemical. It's a look for people who've seen beyond, and found it nothing but tiresome.

    “...one. That I recall.”

    “One what?”

    “One,” he said, acquiring a faintly, undeservedly smug expression, “magical real-estate agent.”

    “Self-described?”

    “Of course not. He must have some self-respect.”

    “I'll tell him you called him that, then. Who?”

    “New money. Landowner. Has property all over the country. This fellow,” he said, taking a drink of water before continuing, “has made something of a trade in buying up property of spiritual value, for resale or rent to those knowledgeable of its true import. Sounds perfect for you.”

    “Sounds like a racket.”

    “Doesn't it just? My prayers go out to you poor, exploited Magi. Believe me.”

    “Strangely, I don't believe you.”

    “Actually, from what I heard, he was quite the scrupulous businessman.”

    “You never met him?”

    “Never had cause to. I know of him. I met people who'd met him.”

    “Where is he?”

    “Kyoto. I don't know the address. Phone number is, ah...do you have-” I took out a small notepad and pen, and handed it to him. Bought both at the airport on the way in. He wrote down a Japanese number, with all the appropriate area codes. “-right. Yes...that's definitely it.”

    “How recent is that number?”

    “Less than a decade. It very likely hasn't changed. Failing that, look in the Kansai phone directory. His public face will be listed, and his name is very distinctive.”

    “Try me.”

    “Izukunzo.”

    It was then my turn to pause.

    “Is that a pseudonym, or...?”

    “It's his real name as far as I know.” He wrote it out on the pad, as if to somehow prove he wasn't making it up.

    焉 松葉

    “Izukunzo Matsuba?”

    “Chinese reading. Izukunzo Shouyou.”

    It had to be a joke. I did think that at the time, at least. Izukunzo – what a name. What a word. In the purely grammatical sense, it indicates a question. It's one of those mouldering archaisms that no-one really uses any more, written with a traditional Chinese character hewn straight from some Confucian proverb I can't remember. It was like being sent to London in search of a certain Mr. Wherefore, or his cousin Mr. Why-Indeed. Evelyn Waugh himself wouldn't be caught dead writing a character of such painfully twee nomenclature, and I certainly wasn't going to let 'Izukunzo' slide.

    “From a branch family of the Naniyue clan, no doubt. Or perhaps a relation of the Naze Shrine priestesses?”

    “Very amusing. But I know nothing more than what I've given you.”

    “Is he Chinese? Because that rather does look like a Chinese name.”

    “I told you,” he said irritably, “I've no idea. Probably not.”

    I deduced that he was at the point of wanting to get rid of me by any means necessary. Actually, he'd been at that point since about one-tenth of a second after meeting me earlier today, but it was now becoming obvious, or more obvious than was normal.

    “You understand,” I said, “that I have to confirm he's real before I let you go.”

    “If I was going to make someone up, I would have had more details to give you.”

    “That's a common heuristic failure you're relying on, there. In fact, there is no level of detail above or below which fabrication is impossible.”

    You are impossible. Fine, call him. It's almost five in the morning over there, that's just before dawn. He'll probably be up.”

    “Probably?”

    “How the devil should I know?”

    “Doctor, I have really no idea. I think we should give it half an hour before trying him, though. I don't want to make a poor first impression by waking him up.”

    “Right. Yes. Whatever.” He sighed. Nearing the end of his rope, I judged. Then he looked up at me. “And what, I ask, are we to occupy this half-hour with?”

    “There's always the dessert menu.”

    Christe eléison.”

    * * * *
    I do make fun of him, and I'm very rarely sorry that I do, but nevertheless the good Doctor Faustus came through. He had no choice, of course, but I still appreciate the effort. Last time, after all. A good final impression is just as important as a good first. Oh, it was a tearful parting. The moment he co-signed that scroll, it was as if the clouds parted overhead, archangels descended from on high, the music of the spheres began to suffuse his braincase. Positively beatific. I do hope he'll never have to find out that the geas only applies to me in this body.

    Ah, well. Moving on.

    At length, the number worked. At ruinous expense, a bounteous infinity of arcane components within the international telecommunications apparatus sprung into action at my bidding. Electronic noises echoed like whale-song down the line. A click was heard somewhere in geostationary orbit, and a few brief eternities later I obtained a familiar ringing tone originating from – area codes permitting – the old capital. Kyoto was laid down by the Emperor Kanmu in AD 794; by the sound of it, the phone lines are only marginally more recent. Nevertheless, someone picked up. Male. Adult. Beyond that, age indeterminate. Our conversation was short.

    First, I asked if his name was Izukunzo Shouyou.

    Yes.”

    Then I intimated that I knew what his business was.

    Yes...”

    Then I explained that I wanted to see about purchasing some property.

    Yes?”

    Then I asked if we could arrange a consultation time.

    Yes.”

    Then I asked if that 'yes' indicated both possibility and willingness, and not just the former.

    Yes.”

    Then I asked if he knew any words other than 'yes'.

    ...Yes.”

    I could have sworn I heard someone else laughing in the background as he said it. At whom, I couldn't tell. After that, there was an expectant pause, in which neither of us said anything at all. Fully fifteen seconds passed, each one more filled with silence and electrical noise than the last. Finally he said this:

    Come to Kyoto. Call again. We'll talk once you're here.”

    Then he hung up. Then Faustus and I signed in blood, and said our farewells.

    I caught the one o'clock flight to Osaka the very next day.

    * * * *



    - - - Updated - - -

    0/Season of Migration to the West

    In movies, this travelling bit is usually done in a quick montage, which I think is really the right choice. Fifteen hours of air travel can be redeemed as fiction only by some heavyweight psychological horror or a spectacular crash killing near-everyone on board at the end, and I'm sorry to say that my flight touched down at Kansai International without incident. I'd packed lightly on my initial exodus to Rome; two suitcases sufficed. Clothes-slash-et cetera for a week, and various thaumaturgical items I go nowhere without. (Had a hell of a time getting the latter through Italian Customs. Long story.) I am not without financial resources; thanks to a history of judicious embezzlement from my research funds I have actually become quite wealthy of late, in anticipation of the near-future need to drop a large amount of cash down a bottomless pit, so any other necessities can and will be procured on-site. The rest of my effects proper I arranged separate shipping for – cargo flight out of Heathrow, to Narita via Singapore – and they'll be crated up in a warehouse somewhere in Kanagawa Prefecture today or tomorrow. Some things I couldn't ship, so I had to destroy them. Nothing irreplaceable.

    In spirit – in the Platonic sense of being hewn from the one eidos – airports are all the same. They're the decorated endpoints of a vast series of tubes that compress intercontinental distances until they can be crossed on foot. You walk in, sit down, wait, then walk out the other end. Wonderful innovation. Speaking as what could be called a Real Life Witch, it certainly beats braving the polar jet streams on a broomstick. Thing is, though, despite being the first sight you usually have of a country, some unseen compact related to their all-being-the-sameness demands that they not actually be a part of it. Liminal spaces all, like embassies, international waters and unisex toilets. It was only once I stepped outside the air-conditioned interior and was promptly hit in the face with the full force of a Japanese summer at high noon that I properly realised where I was. Summer in London isn't the mere formality reputation might imply, but it is still usually something one can choose to ignore given adequate preparation. By contrast, if you are anywhere south of the thirty-sixth parallel, summer in Japan is a serious thing. It is all fuck, no foreplay. Suppose you step outside, even for a moment: its first move is to lance your eyes with a blowtorch – this is known as 'sunlight' to isolated commentators – and then, having blinded you, it swiftly mummifies your twitching cadaver with a squad of moist, steaming towels, as if one has just finished a meal at a Chinese restaurant for the gods. Tight indeed is the grip of humidity; it holds you like a lover and whispers horrendous songs of nature's indifference through to the depths of your limbic system with a lusty, bloodthirsty relish that suggests it has killed before and will kill again. It's a real bodice-ripper of a season. Enough to make a girl swoon. And yet it must be endured; this is, of course, something the natives are apocryphally very good at. Only mad dogs and nihonjin, et cetera. I prefer not to speak for others, but it's true enough for me. I have an exceptional capacity for self-control.

    Not much time spent down the coast, all told. Passport cleared with no trouble; my aggressively cute customs officer even gave me the special kind of youkoso reserved for natives whose stamps indicate they've been off-shore for a while. Once inside Japan in the proper legal sense, I found a phone booth and made a call ahead to the hotel to confirm my room reservation. All in order, of course. Then I caught the JR West express to Kyoto Station at the first available opportunity. Along the way, I found myself looking out at the lingering earthquake damage. A lot of cranes and scaffolding around the place; big trucks and helmeted work crews sweltering in their high-vis jackets. Buildings being knocked down, new ones being built. Cracked road surfaces.

    Call me prescient, but I have a feeling '95 won't be fondly remembered here. The London papers picked up the big stories, and big indeed they were: first the Hanshin quake, then that bunch of amateur chemical-warfare enthusiasts in the Tokyo subway. Then, of course, the little things. Market failures. Unemployment. The suicide rate. It's madness. The sigh of the lost creature. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold...all quite apocalyptic, in the original sense of the word. The false veils pulled back. When I left, this country knew exactly what it was doing. Had it all mapped out. It knew precisely what it wanted to be, and how to get there. Now I'm back, and it's got no idea. Though this transformation is barely on the edge of being palpable at street level. There is a truly impressive attempt at a return to normalcy going on in the shadows, and if you had only the returnees lining up at designer stores in the duty-free section and populating the bars and lounges in Arrivals as your sample, you'd think nothing out of place from the heady summer of '88. These reserved island cultures are much alike, allowing for a certain degree of disjoint time, and many an upper lip is as stiff here as it would have been in Britain circa Victoria.

    Ah, what a cynic London has made me. Though not without reason.

    Let me address the white elephant in the room. You may be of the impression that a Sealing Designation makes one's life very difficult – that I should be changing my name, my hair, my credit cards, and overall just hiding out in a tin-roofed shack miles from human habitation somewhere in Mongolia. This impression is untrue, or at best partially true. It lacks a certain understanding of the process by which they are declared and enforced, and of the psychology of the individuals who carry out that process. To expand on what I said to Doctor Faustus: though I am told research gets done on occasion, Clock Tower is fundamentally a bureaucracy. A labyrinthine feudalistic nepotistic bureaucracy, yes, but all those adjectives simply serve to reinforce the inherent purpose of a bureaucracy, which is the imposition of as many well-remunerated intermediaries as possible between the motion and the act, the idea and the reality. To wit: those empowered to do so may declare a Sealing Designation all they like, but it falls to other people to actually go out and enforce them. The latter people are roundly considered uncouth, their company undesirable, and their agency unworthy of funding increases. As such, the poor understaffed Enforcers have a backlog to make one envy Sisyphus and his rock. Not to mention that the process for declaring them is obscenely corrupt, and is routinely monopolised by powerful political cliques among the Lords (who all, of course, have their own private militias to 'enforce' things, which rather leaves the official bunch cold) for getting rid of researchers they feel to have slighted them, or for building the prestige of their own departments. A faculty that produces a lot of Sealing Designates is clearly engaged in vital contributions to the thaumaturgical arts, mm? The Vice-Director, canicula ferrea, more-or-less tolerates this behaviour because – as much as she would be loathe to admit it – maintaining order in the Isles is dependent on keeping at least fifty-one percent of the nobility sweet, just like any other good medieval monarch. What this means is that I, being one of the few to actually obtain their Sealing Designation on what passes for pure merit (hasn't yet gone through, but sources indicate to me that my latest research paper is currently fuelling certain discussions up on Mahogany Row; in the interest of safety, I have made like a chicken and flown the coop before I am plucked and eaten) am going to be very far down the list of a very beleaguered organisation, which sadly has much more to gain by doing the footwork for a bunch of inbred would-be Machiavellis with Lordly title.

    Honestly, I think I would have gotten out of London regardless. You may be beginning to see why.

    At length – or rather, in brief; earthquake damage or no, the precision-engineered machine of JR keeps its rolling stock just that – my train came to the mountains. Forested ridges and hilltops became visible in the distance. Only in the distance, mind you: it's all city all the way. Seen from above, Kyoto is a small clump of grid-patterned nutrients that a vast, insectoid Osaka-Kobe monstrosity stretches out an urbanised proboscis to meet and eat. The train lines are just an aspect of this. They are a thoroughly necessary aspect, too, because Kyoto – notoriously – has no airport. Firstly there's nowhere to put it – everywhere that's not too hilly has already been urbanised for centuries. But secondly and more importantly it would play hell with aesthetics of the place. There is an invisible spatial order to things here, one which gives every impression of having been worked out to the tenth decimal place long ago. You see it in the layout of streets, the paths of rivers and locations of temples and shrines. It's been a long time in the making, but naturally it goes back to old Kanmu and his attempt to transplant the meticulous Feng Shui of the T'ang Chinese capital to the mountains near Lake Biwa. The Emperor was divinity in the day. His seat of power thus needed to function on levels beyond the merely mortal. One cannot approach it from the sky, from heaven above; not from the ten in ten'nou, the bounteous ama that brings forth swords and spears and bridges and incestuous divinities. It would be indecorous. It would be missing the point. The great spiritual-spatial politic seared into the Japanese psyche by a millennium and a half of Confucianism rebels at the thought. You have to come in by land, up from the coast like a provincial procession of yore; like an imperial princess returning from her long investiture at the Ise Grand Shrine, purified in the waters of Osaka Bay before rejoining the rarefied life of the court.

    Yes – one does not 'go', one always 'returns' to the old capital. Even the natives are convinced. As Kyoto Station slowed to a halt outside my window, the first thing I saw was a huge sign on the platform wall opposite. Tourist fly-paper. You know the type. An advertisement with one of those four-seasons photo montages, displaying all the big sights and every possible permutation of weather conditions. The stage at Kiyomizu. The burning daimonji. Geisha girls in Gion. The castles, inside and out. That big orange tunnel of torii gates. Cherry blossoms in spring, fallen leaves in autumn, riverside walks in summer, snowy shrines in winter and all the rest. And superimposed in big, friendly calligraphy, there was the message: Welcome home. Like parent to child.

    I stepped off the train.

    “Yeah, yeah. Tadaima.

    * * * *
    I caught a taxi straight to the hotel. Broken AC; I didn't envy the driver. The humidity was even worse here than at the coast. Not hard to tell why. Kyoto sits in a large basin surrounded by mountains, so humidity just sinks down to the city and stays there. No sea breezes to relieve you when you're seventy kilometres inland. Fortunately, it wasn't a long trip. I paid excess and told him to keep the change. Sure, I could have taken a train – like most big hotels, mine is roughly a brick-throw from a major rail hub – but I didn't want to. Sick of 'em already. Could have also gone cheaper on the room, but I didn't want to do that either. I have a weakness for expensive hotels. It's the atmosphere. The climate control. The purposeful use of space. The indoor restaurants and pools and gymnasia. The sound of air down long carpeted hallways. The complimentary bottles of shampoo. The relentless perfection of it all. The linen. God, I love it. I'm going to steal the towels when I leave.

    Before that, however, there is a process I have for hotels. The moment I got inside my room, before I did anything at all, I opened the second suitcase I brought and got out some runestones. Then I started marking wards in blood all over the place. I spent half an hour putting up a three-layer barrier. Then I spent another half-hour making it a five-layer barrier. I am not afraid of London, nor indeed of anyone else, but I am not an idiot. I had Doctor Faustus fill me in over dessert the other night about the situation in Kyoto vis-à-vis non-mundanes. Damn near killed him; once or twice I think he was on the verge of breaking a plate over my head.

    In short, the spiritual land here is extremely high-quality – Kanmu chose well – but no-one actually 'owns' it in the sense that, say, the Tohsaka own their patch of turf on behalf of London, or Ise Grand Shrine still maintains patronage over their corner of Mie Prefecture. In ancient times the reigning Emperor would have been the one in control, and though the rights in a technical sense still belong to the Imperial Household, whether or not the present-day royals are actually aware of this is a state secret which very few people are privy to. Despite the apparent interregnum on the ground, no-one would dare set about trying to run the place, as – Faustus implied – there are still shadowy organisations out there on the periphery (knowing nods were made in the direction of Enryaku-ji on Mount Hiei, though doubtless there are others) with an interest in preserving the status quo, and the power to crush anyone who thinks it should be otherwise. This drives a certain self-organising tendency in what might otherwise be a fairly chaotic free-for-all among those who do come to set up shop in Kyoto. Even though every supernaturally-affiliated person or group in the city today is what a Western Magus would call a 'squatter', there is peace of a kind, and a hidden order to their interactions. A hierarchy? Maybe, maybe not. The way he described it, it sounded like some kind of hyper-complex rock-paper-scissors patron-client network. To be honest, I don't think he had a very good handle on it. Doctor Faustus was never quite able to penetrate the mysteries of Kyoto in his time here, and in the end all I got out of him was a short list of family names to keep an eye out for. Izukunzo was one of them. You'd think it would reassure me, that it's not an utter war zone down here, but you'd be wrong. When the order of things is invisible to me, it is in some ways worse than chaos. Chaos has only one rule, impossible to break by definition – canis canem edit. Order makes things more complicated. The wards were simply elementary precautions. Against what? Against complications...

    With that out of the way, I got settled. Moved my clothes into the wardrobe, and stashed the second briefcase in a secure cranny. Then I showered; made a note to have that shirt sent away to be ironed. London had made me too much its child, and acclimatisation was going to drag its feet every step of the way. Until then, sweat would be a problem. True, I could manually shut off my ability to perspire, but in this weather that could be very dangerous. Always mind the TPO for messing with your thermoregulation. As I was towelling off afterwards, I thought about the court ladies of the Heian period. People usually picture them cocooned in those notorious twelve-layer kimonos, but in the summer – a season where so much as looking at a decent juunihitoe would probably kill you – they wore raw silk gauze in single layers, very thin and very nearly transparent. One step removed from going topless, the lot of them. Arguably they had more sense than people today, but I doubt that on a foundational level. Diaries from the early years of this millennium indicate that cat-fights spring eternal. People don't really change. It's values that do. Read Genji and it'll all become clear. The red-blooded male of pre-modern Japan has no eros for the breasts; he's all about the face, the nape of the neck. How impossibly alien in opinions they are – the ghosts this city is built on.

    A lesser woman would have collapsed into bed around then. Not me. Jet lag had no dominion; I have long since engineered it away. It feels vaguely embarrassing to admit now, but early on in my tenure at Clock Tower, I came to the conclusion that conventional human sleep cycles were far from an efficient use of hours that could otherwise be spent working. So I found a solution. I don't know if I can push it indefinitely – there have been a few incidents where I crashed after two-hundred-hour experimental sessions in the Abattoir, but I chalk those up to poor nutrition more than anything – but rejecting my body's natural inclination to believe that it was a little past midnight right then was no trouble. I had work to do, and I needed to go out again anyway. As I got re-dressed, I checked the menu. The hotel had a restaurant of its own, not far from me on the upper floors. My heart rose at the listings, I can tell you that. Here's a maxim: the sordid colonial history of the West can be entirely excused with but one fact – it is now possible to get a Continental breakfast on every continent. Fantastic. I knew where I'd be tomorrow morning.

    When I left the hotel, it was a little after two. Early afternoon; the hottest part of the day. I proceeded on foot and instantly regretted it. Still, I was committed. Going back for a train or taxi would have been like admitting defeat. Beyond that, I had a vague desire to see if I'd be followed by anyone. Not impossible. Even on a weekday there were still a fair few people out on the streets. I used their presences to salt my trail. Even with all Circuits closed, the precaution was worth taking. There are still tracking methods that can distinguish very fine qualitative differences in disturbances in environmental mana caused by living creatures.

    To repeat myself: fearless though I may be, I am not an idiot. I was not going to call Izukunzo from my hotel room. I was going to find a public phone-booth somewhere far away from my hotel room and call him from there. I unplugged the room phone when I was setting up, actually. Barriers or no, I didn't plan on advertising my presence there. Not only does the technology exist today to trace such a call back to my room number, there has been a fair amount of thaumaturgical work done recently on wired telephony, usually involving the principle of contagion. Given a choice between allowing a sufficiently skilled Magus a way to circumvent my bounded fields (it's very difficult, but can be done with most landlines; the Clock Tower establishment don't care about that knowledge being in the open, since they are irrepressible conservatives all and don't use phones anyway) or allowing anyone to trace my calling location directly yet have that knowledge mean nothing, I'll go with the latter every time. Yes, yes, cloak and dagger. I know. But, again – complications.

    I walked north for a couple of blocks, then turned right when I came to a main thoroughfare that led eastward across the Kamo. Crossed it. The air on the river was marginally cooler than that in the surrounding city; the pedestrians gathered on the riverside walk below seemed to agree. In spring there'd be cherry blossoms all along the path, but not now. I had some awareness that the Heian Shrine was down the road; maybe I saw it on a sign somewhere?

    Kyoto at street level is an interesting beast. Walking through it gives you a sense of all the ways in which it does not exist as it does on brochures. It somehow contrives to be a city for living people as well; it has office blocks and modern cafes and apartments and hospitals and police stations and art galleries and essentially every kind of building which doesn't attract tourists by virtue of simply continuing to exist. It is a very low-rise city, probably due to the same kind of municipal ordinance you always have in these lived-in antiques: a restriction on building height so there aren't skyscrapers to cramp its style. Furthermore, the ancient grid structure of the place leaves it with very long sight lines, so there is almost nowhere from which you can't look and see mountains rising up at the periphery. Makes the place feel like something found at the bottom of a pond after draining it. Like it was always there. Probably intentional, that. Kyoto is not a colourless city like others I could name – here the ferro-concrete often has hue as well as brightness and contrast – but walking its streets gives one the impression that colour, while present, is really not the point of the exercise. It's light that Kyoto's about. The whole structure of the place – the hidden order, the Feng Shui – I'd bet anything that the control of brightness and shade is at the heart of the matter. Even the new buildings, the relentlessly modern scions of the late twentieth century, have unconsciously fallen into line with the system. Think of it as a system of canals to channel the sunlight, the buildings as sluices and locks; it cascades down over Nyoigatake in the morning, floods the city by noon, and drains away to the west at the end of the day. Rinse and repeat. The place looks tone-mapped. It's like a movie in Technicolor.

    Eventually, I had enough. Somewhere in the shade far on the eastern side of the Kamo, I found a phone booth, pushed some coins in and dialled I for Izukunzo. He picked up quickly this time. The line was clearer, too. I now decided then that he sounded middle-aged. Distinguished? The Kyoto accent had an influence, but it was there. He had a certain kind of auditory presence, hard to put into words. The kind of voice you imagine belonging to someone famous.

    Yes?”

    “Not this again, please.”

    It's you.”

    “In Kyoto, as requested. A pleasure as always, Mr. Izukunzo.”

    You have me yet at a disadvantage, Ms...?”

    “I'm very sorry. I'm afraid I still can't oblige you.”

    I see.”

    “I understand your doubts. I'll have you know I carry a letter of introduction from a certain Doctor Faustus, who vouches for my probity.”

    I used Faustus' real name there, of course. He seemed to know of the man, by reputation if nothing else, which was fortunate.

    Hm. Later, then.”

    “By all means. Regarding that 'later', in fact...”

    We meet tomorrow. At my shop, after closing. Six o'clock in the evening.”

    That, I thought, was interesting. 'Shop' – not a very New Money-sounding term. Someone like that you'd expect to have an 'office', a 'building' or maybe even a 'villa'. A 'place' at the very least. But a 'shop'? That's really more of a petty-bourgeoisie affectation. The whole point of being Money, New or otherwise, is that you don't have to work in a 'shop'.

    “Agreed. And where would that be?”

    You will be guided.”

    Not unexpected. If his shop was hidden especially well, a guide would be necessary to get me there in a reasonable amount of time – and, probably, to put an additional layer of security between himself and our meeting.

    “I've no issue with that. When and where do I meet the guide?”

    Five-thirty, tomorrow. And anywhere in the city. It doesn't matter. Havana will find you.”

    “Havana?”

    Yes. Havana. Until we meet, then.”

    Click.

    I stood in the phone booth in the heat, and looked at the receiver for a brief moment.

    “...Havana?”

    * * * *
    We will soon catch up to the present-tense story. You can feel it, can't you? The paradigms are shifting already.

    After that conversation with Izukunzo's characteristically terse self, the time passed quarter to three. The sun was tentatively beginning to lower. And I had really nothing to do until tomorrow. Ghastly situation to be in, that. I didn't enjoy it. I hate a lot of things, but stagnation is one of the major ones. Having nothing to do was like having an itch that couldn't be scratched. Sightseeing did not suit me, though it's scarcely avoidable in Kyoto; you can hardly turn a corner without seeing some outhouse that pre-dates the Magna Carta. I had a notion of heading back to the hotel to go over the old spiritual surveys of Honshu and Hokkaido, to see if I could narrow down my preferences for a new atelier location. But that notion implied yet more walking in the heat – I couldn't see any taxis around – so I was only half-committed to it. Uncharacteristic of myself, that. I thought that at the time, and I still do now. Ordinarily I'd have ignored the heat and headed straight back anyway, but I didn't. Something caused me to linger. To hesitate. The heat itself? A likely culprit. Puddles your thoughts. It was going take some getting used to. I made a note to pick out my future workshop somewhere north. Extreme north. Hokuriku at minimum. Aomori preferably. Hokkaido. Hell, Sakhalin or the Kurils, maybe. I decided to think on it some more. But then there was Izukunzo's reference to this mysterious 'Havana' to think about as well. That was a puzzle; halfway interesting to solve, perhaps, though I'd find out the answer tomorrow anyway. Proper name. Familiar? Person? Certainly not Havana qua the capital city of Cuba. Havana will 'find' me – what, anywhere? No matter what? What if I'm in a car? On a moving train? In my room, sealed in barriers as it was? Really, now – you give me a claim like that, you know I'm going to have to push it as far as it'll go. Havana...made me think of Graham Greene, actually. Batista's Havana. All those classic scenes. Drinks at the Wonder Bar with Dr. Hasselbacher. Captain Segura and his wallet – or was it a cigarette-holder? – made from human skin. Hawthorne and his increasingly clean hands. Fake spies and real corpses. Vacuum cleaners. The checkers game with whisky miniatures. And Milly, Wormold's beautiful daughter, who trailed wolf-whistles on the way home from Catholic school...

    Good God, the heat. The light! Kyoto was at it again. Devious. Hidden structure. Locks and sluices outpouring. I walked and I thought. Meursault probably shot his Arab on a day like this. A voice in the back of my head reminded me that I sunburnt easily. I came to a resolution. Had to find a building, somewhere to go inside. Air-conditioned, preferably. Somewhere to wait out an hour or so and cool down.

    I found the Imura Art Gallery, on Marutamachi-dori.

    The wonderful thing about the past tense, and its concordant intimation that I am somewhere up in the future telling this story (I am, for now), is that I can place everything in context. Everything 'precedes' rationally, and there are no coincidences. Foreshadowing, in essence, becomes possible only in retrospect. I'm not going to do it, though, because it's dishonest. I came to the gallery because I just happened to pass it by, and it seemed an inoffensive enough place to waste time and cool off. I could say that a cloud wandered across the sun the moment I walked in, sirens wailed in the distance, I felt a chill up my spine – et cetera. I could very easily do that. But I won't. All those things did indeed happen when I walked in, but they didn't have much influence on my state of mind. Clouds just do that on occasion, no city would be complete without periodic Doppler-shifted sirens, and the chills were from the air-conditioning and thus quite welcome. No – at the time, I thought nothing more than that it was a rather typical example of art gallery design post- about 1980. Very clean lines, very white inside. If you were willing to overlook the relative absence of helots and pederasty, you might call it 'Spartan'. All the better to draw attention to the art, went the argument, and much cheaper to maintain than some classical behemoth like the Louvre, went the rationalisation.

    I walked through. Deeper into the building. There was coolness and shade within. Artificial lighting and roaring AC. A plaque on the wall nearby promised milk and honey of a different kind. The gallery, it had to say, had been founded in such-and-such a recent year to exhibit the work of upcoming artists on the Kyoto 'scene'. That promised something to do, at least: random-walk around for a while and see how long it took to find something eye-wateringly pretentious. I set out immediately. First I came across a room exhibiting some black-and-white photography. A lot of group shots in varying circumstances – families, apparently – with captions seemingly unconnected printed on very small pieces of card underneath. I didn't bother to read most of them. The photographer clearly knew his way around an f-stop or two, but overall I found it carefully devoid of anything too inspired. Duly enough, there didn't seem to be anyone else visiting. The whole place was dead. I couldn't hear any footsteps aside from my own. I don't know what you'd consider 'rush hour' for modern art galleries, but early afternoons on Friday clearly weren't it. Weekends maybe, but the sign on the door indicated that they closed on Sundays and Mondays. I continued on. There was a staircase at the back of the room. I ascended it and passed into a small annex with a set of frosted-glass doors at the end. From there I opened the way to the second gallery.

    That was when I saw the geisha.

    This room was taller than the one below it, though of otherwise similar dimensions. It was lit from above by a large skylight, through which the angled sunlight cut the room like a guillotine. In the centre of the room were four oblong pedestals in a square, and on each one there was a statue about a metre in height, made of something clear and crystalline. The shaded part of the wall was speckled thick with the interplay of refracted caustics from the sunshine they caught and scattered. They were so bright at first that I couldn't quite make out what they were statues of. You saw it as you came closer. Intentionally, surely. Your eyes focused, the structure unravelled in your mind. That they were humans I deduced early on. But it wasn't until I drew much nearer that I saw that all four were statues of geisha.

    That it was beautiful glass-work scarcely needs to be said. It was. The statues were geisha, in all finery and fine detail. Their coiffured hair and pins of jade and ivory, their made-up faces and glistening eyes, slender limbs and fingers – their layered seasonal kimono, in every fold, every subtle crease and turn of sleeve and skirt – all of it was in the glass. Frozen to crystal. Here one played the shamisen, here one read, one drank, one danced. The paraphernalia too were glass. And to think it stopped there, on the surface...no. The master artisan's work continued deeper. The patterns on their kimono were expressed colourlessly, but in three dimensions. Their motifs and scenarios, etched into the heart of the glass. In one, koi-fish swam through a miniature river. In another, skylarks took flight over snowmelt. The scenes inside them seemed to shift and twist and involute within themselves as you moved your viewpoint. Perspectives warred, every angle seeming to reveal something new. That was not pretension. Far from it. That was pure talent, will and devotion. Very few could ever attain it.

    I could have looked for hours. I almost did. But I was lifted from my reverie by a flicker of movement in the corner of my eye.

    It took me a while to realise that she had been there from the beginning. I just hadn't noticed. She'd been sitting in a corner in the shadowed region on a folding chair, and I'd been too dazzled by the geisha to send my gaze in that direction. I did not turn to look. I saw her reflected in the corner of my glasses. She rose from her seat, slowly, but didn't move from where she stood. She watched me.

    Seeing this, something else caught my gaze that hadn't before. A little copper – or brass – plate affixed to the side of one of the pedestals. Its machining seemed raw, unfitting with the finely-polished work above. It was bare except for a single sentence engraved.

    Je ne suis pas une femme, je suis un monde...”

    I am not a woman,” said the woman behind me, “I am a world.”

    Her voice was quiet but clear, despite the rumble of the air-conditioners. Lilting in the local accent. As Kyoto girls do. She remained where she stood. I did wonder if she knew the context of that quote – if she had known when she wrote it there. The source is Flaubert. The Temptation of Saint Anthony. His life's work. The Saint, a great holy man of the era, confines himself away from the world to further his devotion to God; yet one fevered night of doubt, the Queen of Sheba appears to him in a dream, and bears with her all the temptation and carnality of the material world–

    “Do you see the one who drinks?” I looked over at the one she meant – the furthest from where I stood. The sake cup in one hand, the bottle in another.

    “Yes.”

    “She was my favourite to make.”

    “Why?”

    “The character is inspired by Komako, from Snow Country. Note her tipsy expression. The etching within her is based on Kawabata's descriptions of the mountains of Hokuriku. Look closely and you can see the train the protagonist arrives in near the beginning. It is cute.”

    At last, I turned to face her. The sunlight glared on my eyes and did its best to obscure her, but I could still see into the shadows. The artist was not much shorter than me, lightly built and with very dark hair in slight disarray cut to the length of her shoulder-blades. Dressed for the heat. A light shirt and loose skirt. Both expensive, but tastefully so. Suited her. She was pretty, but not beautiful. She wouldn't be.

    Not her.

    “Freckles.”

    The moment I recognised her, perhaps even before I consciously recognised her, I came to understand something very clearly. Very cold and ruthless and raw. Like a bullet of ice through the head, it hit me.

    I knew that – after all these years, never even hearing her name – I despised her more than anything else in the world.

    “It's been a while since anyone's called me that.” She giggled. A sound like a ringing bell. “But, yes.”

    “You haven't been keeping up with people from Reien, I take it.”

    “No. Have you?” she asked breezily. I stiffened. That had been a mistake.

    “...No.”

    “That's right,” she said, as if to herself – though without breaking eye contact. “You went away, didn't you?”

    “London.”

    “To London?”

    “Yes.”

    “It has been a long time, hasn't it?” Her smile didn't break for moment. Her composure was flawless. It was all of a sudden very cold. The air-conditioner hummed above us. A heavy truck passed on the street outside. She held my gaze and didn't let go. “Touko?”

    I felt my jaw clench.

    “It has.” I blinked my eyes rapidly, trying to recover my thoughts. I relaxed my arms, and gestured around the empty gallery. “Seems you're not very popular.”

    As usual, I almost added. For her part, she didn't move. She didn't blink. Just stood there, smiling. Eyeing me like one of her fucking statues.

    “There were a lot on the eighth, and the tenth. This is a slow day.”

    I wanted a reaction from her. Anything. I wanted to feel something push back. Something that didn't smile.

    “...Yes. Evidently.”

    Yet – all of sudden – it seemed like I had nothing clever to say.

    “I think I'm going to leave early.” She took a step towards me, and then another. Her footwork was somehow dainty, as if she'd fall over and shatter at any moment. Soon there was barely a metre between our faces. “How long are you in Kyoto?”

    “A few days. On business.”

    Probably. Hopefully.

    “Perfect.” She brought her hands together, as if in prayer. “You're free tonight, though, aren't you?”

    I made to say something, but held myself back. Mouth half-open.

    “I want to take you out,” she continued. That same glassy smile.

    “...Whatever for?”

    “Dinner?”

    “Dinner,” I repeated, as if it were the scientific name of some extinct mammalian species.

    “We should catch up. It's not often we have these opportunities in life.”

    She looked at me. She kept on looking at me.

    “I know a place. I'll treat you. This city is famous for its dining. And if I'm right, the last you ate was on the flight in. I can tell.” She clasped her hands behind her back, and leaned toward me slightly. “You look tired.”

    “Do I,” I murmured.

    “Aren't you tired, Touko?”

    There was a pause then. Lengthened and exasperated. Her eyes were large and very dark, irises like beads of obsidian glass–

    Fine,” I all but spat the words at her, without really processing their meaning. It was a just a way to be rid of her in the immediate term. “Fine. I will.” I exhaled, and for the first time since identifying her, broke eye contact. I looked over the geisha statues. Somehow they all seemed less animated, less in motion than they had been when I walked in. “When and where?”

    She had a pad of Post-It notes with her, and quickly wrote up a restaurant name and address that meant nothing to me, but probably would to a taxi driver. Pulled it off and handed it over. Numbly, I found a pocket for it.

    “It'll be a six-thirty reservation. I'll tell the staff to expect you.”

    “What if it's booked out?” I asked, under my breath.

    “It will be a six-thirty reservation.” With that, she began walking to the exit. As she passed my side, she leaned over and whispered to me, “Wear something nice.”

    And then she left me behind.

    I stood there for few seconds, frozen. I was unable – in some way diminished, no longer capable – of articulating what just happened.

    I hated-

    Then, in a start, I tore off my glasses and turned on a foot – half-wanting to smash the lot of her statues right there and then, half-wanting to call out and make her stop before leaving so I could do it in front of her. I was all of a sudden very cold and very cruel and I hated her, absolutely hated her, and-

    -and she just left me. Just walked out.

    She opened those frosted-glass doors, hair uplifted by the draft, and walked out without a word. Without a care in the world. W-

    -what was that?

    She...

    Hair-

    No. That wasn't it. Just before she passed out of sight-

    -what was that?

    At that instant, I saw something. Just as the hair parted at the nape of her neck. Exposed just for a second. Her shirt hid the rest, but I saw the very top, if only for a moment. A patch. A colouration of skin.

    The wine-dark ink of a tattoo.


    -------------------------------------------------------------
    For the record: this is a character study of KnK Touko only. It's gonna be pretty much completely ignoring Mahoyo.
    Last edited by Dullahan; November 8th, 2016 at 03:05 PM.

  2. #2
    woolooloo Kirby's Avatar
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    YEEEAAAHHHHHH

    now time to read it
    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    there aren't enough gun emojis in the thousandfold trichiliocosm for this shit


    Linger: Complete. August, 1995. I met him. A branch off Part 3. Mikiya keeps his promise to meet Azaka, and meets again with that mysterious girl he once found in the rain.
    Shinkai: Set in the Edo period. DHO-centric. As mysterious figures gather in the city, a young woman unearths the dark secrets of the Asakami family.
    The Dollkeeper: A Fate side-story. The memoirs of the last tuner of the Einzberns. A record of the end of a family.
    Overcount 2030: Extra x Notes. A girl with no memories is found by a nameless soldier, and wakes up to a world of war.

  3. #3
    el bolb Bloble's Avatar
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    It's heeeeeeere

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    The only Saber Clone that matters Ace's Avatar
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    Based Dullahan delivers

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    Beats By Matthew ft. Dr. Para Rafflesiac's Avatar
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    KITAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA

    And I got my hopes up unduly from my shoddy memory; chortling is not chuckling, no matter how humorous of a reference that would be.

    The story remains undiminished, that much is certain. There's a fascinating cadence to your writing that is truly engrossing.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Arashi_Leonhart View Post
    canon finish apo vol 3

  6. #6
    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Rafflesiac View Post
    And I got my hopes up unduly from my shoddy memory; chortling is not chuckling, no matter how humorous of a reference that would be.
    You will have to explain said reference to me Raff

    i can barely keep track of the ones i make intentionally
    ちょう
    もく


  7. #7
    死徒二十七祖 The Twenty Seven Dead Apostle Ancestors Alternative Ice's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    You will have to explain said reference to me Raff.

    I can barely keep track of the ones i make intentionally.
    I think he's referencing a conversation in the Things that annoy you in fanfiction discussion thread.

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    Beats By Matthew ft. Dr. Para Rafflesiac's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    You will have to explain said reference to me Raff

    i can barely keep track of the ones i make intentionally
    Quote Originally Posted by Saint Nick View Post
    I think he's referencing a conversation in the Things that annoy you in fanfiction discussion thread.
    Indeed.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Arashi_Leonhart View Post
    canon finish apo vol 3

  9. #9
    I told 'em, I told 'em. Bugrit! eddyak's Avatar
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    Touko purple 2 stronk. So purple she hurts the eyes.
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  10. #10
    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by eddyak View Post
    Touko purple 2 stronk. So purple she hurts the eyes.
    prose so purple a man with five monocles couldn't even grok its jive?

    you lie

    not even Thomas Carlyle could pull that off
    ちょう
    もく


  11. #11
    I told 'em, I told 'em. Bugrit! eddyak's Avatar
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    I didn't say I didn't like it.

    Sometimes walls of digressions are just what a body needs.
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  12. #12
    Who stole my donuts!? Leo Novum's Avatar
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    This is magnificent but really eloquent. It's almost cruel to the eyes.
    If I'm an unknown being, then the way I can change is unknown, too…
    So all I have to do… is make them not-unknown.
    - Teddie, Perona 4

    Spoiler:

    Say what again, I dare you!

  13. #13
    Don't @ me if your fanfic doesn't even have Shirou/Illya shipping k thnx ItsaRandomUsername's Avatar
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    I honestly don't know where to begin with reviewing this. All the digressions and observations and details-noted could be extraneous and Oh-God-Please-Let-It-End done by any other writer, but here, as with your other work, it instead functions like the layering of bricks and mortar - a multitude of building blocks that come together to form a solid, beautiful whole. It reads like a dream. No complaints from me, other than I wish I had read it sooner.
    McJon01: We all know that the real reason Archer would lose to Rider is because the events of his own Holy Grail War left him with a particular weakness toward "older sister" types.
    My Fanfics. Read 'em. Or not.



  14. #14
    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by ItsaRandomUsername View Post
    I honestly don't know where to begin with reviewing this. All the digressions and observations and details-noted could be extraneous and Oh-God-Please-Let-It-End done by any other writer, but here, as with your other work, it instead functions like the layering of bricks and mortar - a multitude of building blocks that come together to form a solid, beautiful whole.
    I've got no idea how my writing style functions, but it seems to. Before I sent this over to Bloble for pre-reading, I was actually on the fence about whether to publish it at all, on the grounds that people would find it ungodly boring.

    It reads like a dream. No complaints from me, other than I wish I had read it sooner.
    You're very welcome. Please anticipate more of Touko's Verbose Adventure...later.
    ちょう
    もく


  15. #15
    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
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    GUESS WHAT FUCKERS LATER IS NOW
    --------------------------------------------------------
    i/The mouse that roared.

    Have you heard the tale of the chicken and the egg? Hardly qualifies as one. Its bones are too bare. It dwells yet in some corner of an academic field: the wind-etched skeleton of a fanciful old thought experiment. It's a simple enough case of a strange loop for almost everyone to understand, and one which invites generalisation to all sorts of situations. X begets Y begets X; whence X and Y? You get the idea.

    Let me tell you about Freckles.

    Firstly, importantly: my interactions with her were sparse. Like shrubs in the Atacama, they were. We were in the same year group but in different classes, and class groups at Reien are very insular. Social relations there tend toward the vertically-oriented; a high school freshman of Class B, let's say, will by the end of the year end up far more familiar with the seniors of Class B than she will of her fellow freshmen in Classes A or C. This is all by design, of course. The place was structured just so. Let us strip away our jejune and dewy-eyed idealism and see Reien for what it truly is: a machine – much like the steam engine or the electric motor, it is the heady Baconic optimism of the Enlightenment swilled through the grinning steel dentures of the Industrial Revolution – for making girls into women. Don't let the veneer of Christianity fool you, thickly laid-on though it may be. Reien is a Japanese school, intended to hew Japanese women from Japanese girls. The original designers understood this very well, and in the fever-pitch of Meiji-spirited modernisation, they had no time for saccharine Semitic sentiment. They took the high road. They took the student body as clay, and with it sculpted a halfway-decent replica of the social organisation of an average Japanese rural village circa 1700: multiple great families, hierarchical within themselves, apart from each other. Obviously without the endogamy and rice-farming, but that was a given. They found that fostering vertical loyalty rather than horizontal solidarity – seniors before sisters, if you will – optimised numerous relevant metrics concerning output quality and consistency of quality, and like any good engineers, they built the place accordingly.

    Later generations of administrators made only the most minor of alterations. What you have there today is pretty close to what you had in the early years of the century. A girl is elevated to womanhood by a chain comprised of her upperclasswomen – viz. literal upper-class women – and in the process becomes part of the chain herself. Ad infinitum. Thus do class groups eat together, study together, sleep together (Purely in the sense of being in the same dormitory building. I think I mentioned earlier that these were some of the straightest girls yet encunted.) and generally interact with other class groups in a competitive mode.

    Of course, nothing in practice is ever so beautifully precise as it is in theory – you can't keep the Spirit of Meiji wholly apart from the Spirit of St. Trinian's, as the seniors' stealthy night-time misadventures attest to – but overall the structure was maintained. And while that structure does serve to emphasise exactly how unusual it was for the name of 'Freckles' to spread to the entire school, at the same time it also explains it. Think back to 1700. Japan the agrarian state. Countless little villages speckle the manifold paddies of the countryside, supplying the vital staple crops that keep the wheels of Edo society turning (a term which here means 'ensuring that some thirty million Japanese do not die slowly from pellagra'). And every village has its hinin – its untouchables, its un-people. The criminals, vagrants, gamblers, prostitutes and miscellaneous blemishes on our fine tapestry of a population. Those who must be ostracised to maintain the purity of the majority. People just work that way, it seems. The human creature demands it; something in the psychology. We might well start plumbing the depths of mammalian neurological evolution to understand this point, but all that's truly relevant is this: there can't be an 'us' if there isn't a 'them'. Think about one of those little villages: those sodden, dull, cousin-fucking hamlets peopled by the same old families for centuries in and centuries out, every life suffocated from birth by the accumulated ghosts of their forefathers, chained to the soil by the power of the state, chained to each other by a social order as strict as the dictates of their harvests, whereby a single crop failure could mean death by starvation – think of how much of an 'us' they were, and think just how efficient they got at building a 'them' in turn. Now think of Reien, a serious school on serious earth, built in just such an orderly image.

    This is the point. Reien is and was a machine for making girls into women, and like any advanced industrial process, this was not without a certain quantity of wastage. Optimising is not perfecting, hence the hinin. The true delinquents, who didn't even bother to conceal their actions. The unwanted daughters of prior marriages. The disobedient. The disturbed. The degenerate. The unteachables qua the untouchables. Every school produces a few of these in its time. They were not liked, of course – that you could like them was, for most, not truly a thinkable thought – but they were needed. Powerfully so. The majority required them as a matter of course; their presence soothed in the abstract. They allowed a few hundred volatile teenage egos to know what they were not. If they did not exist, it would have been necessary to invent them.

    Freckles, as you may have guessed, was one of the un-people. But I am not sure if it was necessary to invent her. It began, like I said, with her actually having freckles. That much is understandable. But the unnatural persistence of the nickname – middle school to graduation, unbroken – cannot be explained by that alone. It was obviously comorbid with her being one of the hinin, but that only raises a further question: why? She wasn't – I have to emphasise this – a traditional un-person archetype. No delinquent she. Freckles was a high achiever. Perfect attendance. Not a single rule infraction to her name. Now that suggests a couple of avenues to you, doesn't it? Perhaps, we might conjecture, this was an Edmond Dantes situation, in which her enemies were driven by pure envy of her enviable qualities? Or perhaps they considered her stuck-up vis-a-vis her successes; the very picture held in mind by whichever poetess of antiquity coined the deliciously euphonic term 'prissy bitch'. Alas, no; were it so simple, this would be far easier to explain. Oh, I'm sure she was diligent and studious and all those other content-free adjectives which exist solely to qualify the noun 'student'. But not to excess, I don't think. Upper percentiles all subjects, but not a valedictorian.

    No...no, she was something far more complicated. And for it, distasteful. God, where to start?

    The surface, perhaps. All that is obvious and laid out to see. I suppose – to start with – there was a kind of nobility to her. Naturally, I don't mean that in the legal or genealogical sense; in the former case our nobility were disbanded after the War, likely in a bid to raise self-esteem among the working class, and in the latter case...well, actually, Kyoto girls being Kyoto-blooded, there was probably something to that. Freckles didn't really express the ancient princess phenotype, but it's fair to say there was probably a bloodline connection to the kuge somewhere up the tree. Anyway, I mean nobility in the sense of a noble character – and that is something quite specific, which begs further definition.

    We can very well call certain individual actions noble; these days, any deed sufficiently self-sacrificing and (above all) newsworthy usually delivers the label gift-wrapped to its doer within six to eight weeks. Nobility of character is something different. Almost entirely the opposite, in fact. It is a kind of personal greatness coupled to self-awareness of said greatness. It's that very Nietzschean pre-Christian master-morality thing – the virtù of Machiavelli's Prince, or the arete of Homer's heroes. The mad old Prussian himself wrote of the Comte de Mirabeau that he never forgave, only forgot; that is about as concise as he gets on the matter. To be noble in character is, in essence, an exercise in extreme and unshakeable – yet not over-inflated – confidence. The noble is, naturally, above others; equally as naturally, they know it. But they are also above the performance of that above-ness, the abrasion, the bullying, the boot-stamping-on-human-face business. To do that sort of thing is petty in every sense of the word – it is small, the action of an ignoble to try and escape from their own detestable smallness. As Nietzsche had it, Mirabeau did not forgive precisely because the barbs of his enemies did not register to begin with, in much the same way we might not notice getting cussed out by a passing fruit-fly. For him there were no counter-barbs, no grudges held, no snide put-downs, nor even any summary dismissals of his opponents' views – there was just an indomitable steamroller of pure will that obliviated their insults without once faltering. He forgot his opponents, because their enmity did not matter to him. Magnanimity, entirely genuine good grace, comes as naturally as breathing to such a personality.

    Imagine trying to bully someone like that. The only marcher in step. Someone able to fall down in such a way that in the same second it looked as if they were standing and walking. Someone for whom peer pressure was as immaterial as atmospheric pressure. It'd be like playing tug-of-war against an eighty-tonne boulder. Nothing would work. All the time-honoured social mechanisms for getting people to fit in to their assigned place in the group would seize up and sputter and wheeze and explode in your face. And with every mean look and harsh eye and vicious prank and nickname, you would be met with – what? No words. No tears. Not even a prim, affected 'above-it-all' look. No. There would be nothing there for you but a vast, distant, mountainous indifference – an indifference that served to return every last put-down with a very visceral impression of just how petty you were for making them. God, it'd be horrifying. She'd be an existential threat. Her sheer presence would send the system teetering on the brink of collapse. A person who did only that which she wanted to do – the horror, the horror. Japan wasn't built for people like that.

    Of course, there are no teenage Mirabeaus. There aren't any adult ones, either. In all probability, outside of obscure Teutonic Gedanken-experiments, not even the Comte himself would qualify. As I said, nothing in practice is ever so beautifully precise. Suppose Freckles was just such a creature. The teething issues would have been most prominent early on, but as she rose through the years and eventually became a senior herself, the pressure from above would have lessened. The annual elevations in social position would have gradually brought expectation a little closer in line with her inclinations. Her un-personhood would have eroded with the passage of time. Perhaps she might even have gathered a clique herself – a cluster of younger hangers-on who fell to the ground at her feet. Worship and adoration is, after all, another logical response to the truly noble individual. But, alas, no. It was not to be. If ever a girl existed that was truly noble at heart, Freckles was not that girl.

    Mind you, that didn't keep her from trying.

    Nobility was...a fantasy, for her. For Freckles. It was an affectation. A deliberate put-on. A Mirabeau mask. And it was very obvious; you could all but see where it was tied around the back of her head. It slipped and hung askance too often to go unnoticed, though never often enough for Freckles to contrive any self-awareness of the fact. There was a mangy little thing under that mask. Something like a cornered rat. A plaintive, timorous intellect that bit and gnawed where it could, but no further. And you could half-see it – peeking out from behind a phrase, a look, an action. She wasn't quite right. A bit too soft underneath, too affected by things, insufficiently 'above-it-all'. Too subtly back-biting to make her act entirely believable. In short; human, all too human. You could feel it. It was enough to make you want to hit her. To grab her by the shoulders and shout at her to stop it.

    This is key. This is the point. If you are going to be inauthentic, you absolutely cannot afford to be obvious about it. Wear the mask well or not at all. The one thing that the rest of the student population could tolerate even less than a Mirabeau was someone trying to be a Mirabeau and not quite succeeding. The former arouses the antipathy of hideous difference; the latter arouses the hatred of hideous sameness. See, everyone wears masks at school, and knows it. To a lesser degree they know that everyone else knows it, too; iterate as needed. But you can't go around making it obvious. You can't break the illusion, the unspoken accord. A true noble would have impressed on those around her just how petty their attempts to bring her down were; a false noble drove home the ugly truth of what it meant to be petty, to be small and driven to escape that smallness at all times by any means necessary. To the small, there's nothing more hateful than someone who shows you what you are.

    Freckles lived her entire school life in a state of constant war. The war of one on all. To engage with her brought a kind of unbearable tension. To relieve it, you needed to bully her. You needed to needle and prod, to get to her, to get under her skin, to get a reaction; to try and peel back the mask and show her – show yourself, show those around you – that she was just as ugly and juvenile and petty and small underneath as you were. And for her part, in a way that thing under her mask – that shady, twitching personality – invited this. Something almost masochistic about her found ways to provoke it. She wanted it. She needed it. She needed you to bully her, so that she could play at being indifferent to it. That was the counter. That was how she bullied you right back.

    And this was the vicious circle that circumscribed 'Freckles'. The nickname endured because she wanted it to endure. Her very existence dared the rest to sustain it, and it worked. And as the years ground on and the name itself lost all meaning on the tongues of those who used it, she kept on drawing it out. In a way, that mangy little thing was strong. She kept up the fight. Six years and she never broke. She was small on the inside and thus vindictive, and she wanted to see the rest of the school break first.

    In this, I suppose, we come at last to the issue of the chicken and the egg. Did she develop such a personality because she was an un-person, or did she fall into un-personhood as a consequence of having such a personality to begin with? Which, which indeed? X begets Y begets X; whence X and Y? Analyse that...

    There are no answers to give you, I'm afraid. I met her far too late.

    --------------------------------------------------------

    Demimondaine is a complex story. It has real chapters and imaginary chapters. This is an imaginary chapter. It's not really here. That's why it's so short. I really do hate to drip-feed with these sub-3000w updates, and I had originally intended to put this up in a package with the next one, but as things stand I don't know when I'll have time to finish that by, so just enjoy this while I get back to tearing my hair out over my dissertation.
    Last edited by Dullahan; July 16th, 2015 at 10:42 AM.
    ちょう
    もく


  16. #16
    woolooloo Kirby's Avatar
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    nice

    And yeah, don't fret about the chapter size. Compared to, like, lots of fics these would be like regular sized, so it's not a big deal
    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    there aren't enough gun emojis in the thousandfold trichiliocosm for this shit


    Linger: Complete. August, 1995. I met him. A branch off Part 3. Mikiya keeps his promise to meet Azaka, and meets again with that mysterious girl he once found in the rain.
    Shinkai: Set in the Edo period. DHO-centric. As mysterious figures gather in the city, a young woman unearths the dark secrets of the Asakami family.
    The Dollkeeper: A Fate side-story. The memoirs of the last tuner of the Einzberns. A record of the end of a family.
    Overcount 2030: Extra x Notes. A girl with no memories is found by a nameless soldier, and wakes up to a world of war.

  17. #17
    Beats By Matthew ft. Dr. Para Rafflesiac's Avatar
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    This is more than enough to satisfy me for a while.

    Interesting as usual, Dullahan.
    Supports:


    Quote Originally Posted by Arashi_Leonhart View Post
    canon finish apo vol 3

  18. #18
    Dead Apostle Eater Historia's Avatar
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    Yeah. Get to it whenever you can. In the meantime we'll digest what we've eaten up from these. Great stuff.

  19. #19
    Who stole my donuts!? Leo Novum's Avatar
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    Nice chapter as usual, Dullahan, even if it's shorter than usual.

    On a side note, I love the way how you characterize, nay, even humanize your OCs. Makes me wish I could do to but without the 10k wall of the words dedicated to describing their psyche.
    Last edited by Leo Novum; July 17th, 2015 at 02:13 AM.
    If I'm an unknown being, then the way I can change is unknown, too…
    So all I have to do… is make them not-unknown.
    - Teddie, Perona 4

    Spoiler:

    Say what again, I dare you!

  20. #20
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    Fuck yes more of this all of this

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