descending choices

The woman came to Yuuko's door via back streets and shadowed alleys, casting glances behind her as though she expected to be followed there. She flinched from the streetlights and shielded her face behind her sleeve until she was inside Yuuko's house.

Once inside, she lowered her sleeve, and she was pretty enough in a middle-aged decorous way, dressed in an expensive kimono in good taste that was worn at the edges and shabby at the neck.

"My name is Misty Fey," she said, after wine had been served. "I am Master of the Kurain Tradition. I would like to ask for your help."

Yuuko nodded. "Of course you do," she said pleasantly. "Nobody comes here unless they want my help."

"Well, then." Misty Fey gave a cheerful, false smile. "You know the Kurain Tradition is renowned for channelling ghosts?"

"Of course," Yuuko said. "I've had recourse to it a few times. Previous payments. You know how it is."

Misty Fey nodded, looking reassured. "Then you'll understand why I've come to see you. The Kurain Tradition has recently had its reputation damaged. I channelled a ghost to tell us who had murdered him, at the request of the police. One Gregory Edgeworth. A prosecuting attorney. He gave a name, but . . . apparently the man was innocent." She pursed her lips. "I don't understand it. In any case, the newspapers have been hounding me. They have persecuted my village. I have had to drop out of the public eye, leave my children to be taken care of, abandon my clients . . . Madam, I am here to ask for your help. Not for myself. Not for my children. But for the Kurain Tradition."

"This seems very important to you," Yuuko said, refilling their cups.

"It is a matter of duty," Misty Fey said. "I could endure having my own reputation smirched, but not that of the Tradition itself. It is something I hold in trust for my daughters, when the time comes. I will pay whatever price you require."

"You say that very easily," Yuuko said, arranging herself on the cushions and spreading out her hair in a long drape beside her. "I don't think you can have much idea of what you're offering."

"Really?" Misty Fey said. She raised her eyebrows, proud with the hauteur of someone who has always ruled her village, her family, and her supplicants.

"Well, the easiest choice would be your own reputation." Yuuko smiled. "I could ask for that. I could ruin you utterly. Then it would simply be a matter of one unworthy Master of the Tradition. The Tradition itself would recover. Someone else could take it over -- your sister Morgan, perhaps."

"No," Misty Fey said sharply. Her back stiffened. "Morgan is unworthy of it."

"Is she?" Yuuko purred.

"She was never strong enough," Misty Fey said dismissively. "And besides, there is something in her that makes her unfit for the position. I cannot agree to that."

"Oh? Very well, then." Yuuko shrugged, and her elaborate robes shifted round her. Her little servants rearranged the folds, resettling the long skirts across the bright cushions. "It seems I may have to ask for something more expensive."

"More expensive?" There was a note of fear in Misty Fey's voice now.

"You've already turned down my first offer. There's no way to go now except deeper." Yuuko studied the woman across her cup of wine. "Your powers, then. Give them to me. I could find a use for them. You can reclaim your children and see to it that one of them takes the position. It will be safe from your sister Morgan. People will assume that any problem with the Kurain Channelling Technique was your own fault, and that the loss of your powers is connected with that. The Kurain Tradition will recover."

Misty Fey shuddered. "My powers are part of what I am. I have a duty to the ghosts."

Yuuko gazed at her calmly. "And there's more than that, isn't there?"

It took a while for Misty Fey to meet her eyes. Finally, she said, "I am not convinced that you are a fit person to have them, madam."

"Honest, at least," Yuuko said. She splashed more wine into her own cup, not bothering about the other woman's this time. "What shall I do, faced with such uncompromising honesty, such selfless purity?"

"I need not sit here and be insulted like this," Misty Fey said, but she didn't move from where she was.

"No. You needn't." Yuuko pursed her lips. "Very well, then. I'll give you one last price. And I promise you that if you take this one, then you will keep your powers, and the Kurain Tradition will be safe from your sister Morgan, and eventually your daughter will be the Master, and it will be respected as it should be."

Hope lit up Misty Fey's eyes, making desperate storm lanterns of them in her weary face. "What do you want?"

"Me? I want Misty Fey." Yuuko smiled. "Find another name. Find another role in life. Be someone else. Never approach your daughters again. Never go near Kurain Village again. Leave a hole in the world where Misty Fey once existed. Give me all that, and I promise that I will fulfil your wish."

Misty Fey flinched as if Yuuko had held a knife to her throat. "No," she said softly.

"Don't think of it as a death," Yuuko purred. "Think of it as . . . Well, perhaps you should think of it as a death. But it's a small death. People have died larger deaths and still lived. You can find ways to be happy. A woman like you will know how to give something back to the world. A new name, a new life . . ."

"It's still a death," Misty Fey whispered.

"Well, of course it is," Yuuko said. "Did you think that you could get away with paying anything less?"