It had been several months and an eternity ago since Minerva had last visited the lake. Like the rest of Gensokyo, very little had changed since then.
Most of the necessary equipment for the expedition had been rented back from the Kirisame store, at much-reduced prices. Maria had seemed willing to act as a guardian in trust for the various alchemical apparatus, partly on the basis that having anyone else express an interest in those particular items was growing ever more unlikely.
"To be honest, all of these would be gathering dust in the back rooms if you hadn't asked for them," Maria said, while Minerva fretted over her potential impact on the Kirisame business. "It's good to see things put to proper use. There are stories, you know, about neglected items returning to take vengeance on those who ignored them."
"Oh?" Minerva said weakly.
"Well, they're just stories," Maria said dismissively. "For all of Gensokyo's youkai, I don't think I've ever heard of one of those pop up yet. Good luck on your experiments, Margatroid-san. If there's anything else you need, just let me know."
Stories, Minerva pondered, as she trundled her little wagon to the spot she had conducted her orihalconic Experiment so long ago. Everyone told stories; it was a peculiarity of human nature, over the entire world. Every land touched by the British Empire had stories of its own, and these stories were brought back to be analyzed by the professors and dons at great centres of learning, where they were dissected, numbered, and filed away into neat cubby-holes. Minerva wondered if there were copies of the Gensokyo Chronicles even now languishing in the depths of Oxford or Cambridge, several editions out of date.
Probably not; Japan's isolation through the centuries had seen to that, and the only representative of Britain now in Gensokyo, where the Gensokyo Chronicles were largely distributed, was presently stamping about, trying to return some life and heat into her extremities in the face of this particularly frigid morning.
The mist around the lake had largely cleared up, save for a stubborn patch about halfway to the far shore, obscuring all beyond it. Minerva's curiosity would have to be sated another time, it seemed.
Minerva set the wagon down, taking a moment to re-tie her hair, inconveniently coming loose from the slim ribbon she wore. Heavy work lay ahead, and her appearance was among the least of her concerns, but her long hair was always more suited for theatre than toil.
She unslung the latest additions to her repertoire of tools. The gardening spade was very nearly brand new; it had originally been an ancient, rusted thing found in the back of some farmer's tool shed, but Minerva had sent it to the village smithy to be reworked, and they had included a brand new wooden handle for free. Minerva detected the intervention of Seiji in this, along with his mysterious network of fellow craftsmen.
She tapped the ground speculatively with her spade. She had not expected to return here during winter, which made her task rather more complicated. Where had it been? The alchemical apparatus had been set up over there. The wagon at that time had been... here. Or was it over there? How many paces had it taken to go from one to the other...
"What are you doing?"
Minerva straightened, hiding a smile. "Merely searching for a small trifle I misplaced a fair while ago," she said. "Well met once again, little lady."
"How long ago? Wait, you mean you lost it back when you were here the last time? When was it..."
"Summer," Minerva supplied, looking around. The tiny clearing held no sign of the fairy's presence. "Where might you be, if I may ask?"
"You lost something all the way back in summer, and didn't bother to go look for it until now? Must be something you don't miss all that much," the fairy decided. Her voice was coming from somewhere in the darkness of the forest surrounding the lake shore, but Minerva could not pinpoint an exact direction.
"I didn't know I needed it until very recently," Minerva said. "Are you hiding from me, by any chance?"
"Of course I am," the fairy's disembodied voice said. "That's the entire point of hide- and-seek. Didn't you know that?"
The fairies of legend were famed for being able to conceal themselves from prying human eyes, largely so that their absence from organized searches in this age of reason was excusable. Of course, this was based on European mythology, and little had been written about the ability of the fae to find each other.
"Am I designated the searcher in this game, then?" Minerva said uncertainly. She could always brush off this unexpected responsibility, but she would rather not offend the youkai inhabitants of this land quite so cavalierly, particularly when they could see her, but not the reverse.
"We've already got one of those," the fairy said. "You're a bit big to go hide, and you're a human, so you shouldn't be in this game anyway."
"The rest of us," the fairy said, enunciating clearly for the slow of thought. "You're really not very smart, are you? Good thing I'm so willing to help."
"I am most grateful," Minerva said, keeping a straight face. "Aren't you worried that you'll be found out? Especially if you continue to speak to me."
"Impossible," the fairy declared. "I'm the best at hide-and-seek, so there's no way anyone else can find me!"
Far be it for Minerva to press the matter, and lose a conversation partner. It helped to take her mind off the cold, at least. Come to think of it, the fairy had displayed a talent for manipulating cold and ice, during their previous meeting. Would the frosts of winter complement her power? Probably not something to test without adequate precautions.
"When I was here last," Minerva said, "I was conducting an experiment." Which the fairy had interfered in, but that was another matter. "I regret to say that I was a little careless, and I might have spilled some of it around here. Just a tiny bit," she said quickly, reassuringly. "I was hoping that you might be able to remind me where it happened?"
"Experiment... oh, that thing with the fire?"
"That thing with the fire," Minerva confirmed.
"And you spilled it... oh, ew! You're talking about that thing in the ground!" The fairy made various noises to demonstrate her disgust. "Take it away, take it away!"
"I'd be delighted to, if I knew where to find it," Minerva said patiently.
"It's right there! Can't you... fine, look, go step to your left. No, your other left. That one, yes. Keep going... no, too far, go back. Go to the front a bit. Front, I said! Wow, it's really hard to deal with someone so stupid. Come on, keep going... too far, back, back!"
Minerva bore the directions with fortitude, as she made a mental note on fairies apparently not being able to tell the difference between left and right. Having reached her destination, she drove the spade in twice, forming a clear cross shape to mark the spot.
"I take it you've had some small interaction with the residue I inadvertently left here?" she said conversationally, as she rummaged through the wagon.
"What, you left it in our territory, didn't you?" The unseen fairy's tone gave the distinct impression of a shudder. "But it's icky and yucky, so we left it alone. You can take it back if you want."
The accidental spill had been Minerva's Experiment in creating Gensokyo's equivalent of orihalcum, or something very much like it. Violet Hearn had not expressed any discomfort in handling a bulk sample of the results, but the negative reaction of the fairies implied something more. Minerva had expected the not-orihalcum to absorb certain energies from the surrounding environment as it formed; could this be affecting the fairies?
She returned to the marked location with a small pot, which she carefully opened, and sprinkled its contents liberally around the area.
"What's that?" the fairy asked, curious but unconcerned.
"Salt," Minerva said, returning the pot to the wagon. It would take a moment for the salt to soften the ground sufficiently to ease digging; in the meantime, Minerva set about arranging her alchemical apparatus as she had the last time.
"Salt? Are you going to cook the ground? Ew, humans are weird."
"It's a ritual," Minerva sighed. Which was technically true, if not precisely magical. The ground there was already barren thanks to the residue of crimson metal, so the salt would not cause very much more environmental damage. The fairy didn't seem to be too put out by it, anyhow.
The instruments of alchemy set up this time were rather different. A large clay beaker, filled with water from the lake, took pride of place, and instead of alembics and pipes for distillation and purification, Minerva set out a piece of tablecloth with complex patterns embroidered upon it. The beaker sat in the center of the design, atop a miniature oil flame; Minerva kept the fire low, out of respect for the fairy of cold and ice. She did not require intense heat for this procedure, but merely enough warmth to counter this winter morning.
Around the beaker, at positions indicated by the ritual circle design, she laid out several sealed ampoules, each containing samples of certain materials. Four arranged in the cardinal directions close to the beaker, followed by five more in a pentagram further out.
Not the first choice of methods Minerva would have used, but she was running out of time.
"Is this a common activity for fairies?" Minerva said, picking up the spade once more. She would likely be here for some time, and the fairy seemed to show no signs of leaving. "Hide-and-seek, I mean. Playing games?"
"Yeah! And I'm the best at everything there is, too! Hide-and-seek, tests of courage, eating bitter or spicy stuff, playing pranks on humans, flying really high and really fast... I'm the strongest!"
"Pranks on humans?" Not much of a surprise, considering Minerva had lost her sandwiches to fairies the last time she was here, but she had assumed the targets to be lone humans like herself in the wilds.
"It's really fun," the fairy assured her. "You should try it sometime. Just this winter, we've already sneaked into all sorts of places and taken all sorts of things. Seven socks, four hairpins, three chicken eggs, two wool gloves..."
"And a partridge in a pear tree?" Minerva said, fascinated.
"What's a partridge?"
"Never mind." Minerva wondered if it would be her civic duty to report this clear confession of larceny, or if she should magnanimously forgive the fairies on behalf of the human residents of Gensokyo, in the spirit of the season. "Do you do this all the time, or are there different enterprises for different times of the year?" Criminal or otherwise.
"Oh, different stuff. I mean, it's only really when it gets cold and snowy that I can try to freeze the lake."
Minerva blinked, pausing in her digging. "Freeze... the lake? The whole lake?"
"Yeah," the fairy confirmed. Not a boast, as much as a statement of fact.
"I see." Minerva drastically revised her estimate of the fairy's prowess. If the fairy could attempt to turn the waters of the entire lake into ice, or even just the surface of it, she may be very powerful, very confident, or very tenacious. All three could be problematic traits, to varying degrees. That patch of mist obscuring the lake might even be hiding a sizeable iceberg.
"What do you humans do?" the fairy wondered. "All I ever see are humans digging and putting things in the ground and taking things out of the ground and yelling at each other and chasing fairies away. Work, work, work, all the time. Don't humans ever play?"
"Children do," Minerva said, settling into an easy rhythm of digging. "Grown-ups like myself seem to have lost the knack of it, sometime in our lives." She brightened. "There are always celebrations, of course. That's when we can pretend we're doing something bigger and more important than simply playing around."
"Celebrations are nice," the fairy said wistfully. "Festivals are nice. Always plenty of food to steal, and nobody cares enough to chase us away. Unless we want them to. It's really funny to see humans running around, all out of breath. Their faces get all red."
"Yes, well, quite." Not any of her business, Minerva reminded herself. Besides, if her plan to solve the youkai problem was successful, all those little annoyances and pranks would simply go away.
Including the boisterous, garrulous, friendly little fairy she was talking to right now.
Minerva's spade hit a strange, hard lump, rather deeper than she had estimated. She bent down to pick it up; it was an irregular blob of something black and calcified, perhaps eight to ten inches across.
Minerva brushed the dirt off it as best she could, and plopped the whole thing into the beaker, which sloshed over. Into this, she introduced three carefully-measured powdered substances from three separate vials. She covered the resultant murky concoction with another piece of cloth, this time a thick, coarse flap of sackcloth.
It was the work of a few moments to spread out a picnic blanket across the frosty ground, some short distance from the unfilled hole. Minerva sat in the middle of the picnic blanket, and pondered the weight of one fairy against the lives of countless generations of humans in Gensokyo. She didn't even like the fairy, as such; the fairy was too ill-behaved and arrogant, in her own childish way.
Which was certainly not a sin that Minerva could cast the first stone at, and hardly deserving of a fate uncomfortably close to extinction.
"Have you heard about Christmas?" she found herself asking.
"Christmas. It's a celebration, a festival from where I come from. It's new to Gensokyo, I would think; at least, I haven't seen anyone celebrate it yet." Nor would Minerva expect to. The Japanese government prior to this one had been ruthless in its persecution of Christianity, and change was still in progress. Not that Minerva had any love for the Church, nor the Church for witches like herself.
What was she trying to do, anyway? Explaining the birth of Christ to Japanese fairies in a land haunted by youkai. As a form of spontaneous repentance, it left rather a lot to be desired, both in intent and effectiveness.
But Christmas was not associated with churches and sermons in her memories. Christmas was a time with family, when the house was alight with noise and voices and laughter and tears and the sizzling anticipation of feasts and food and, in the secret hours of the night, the soft footfalls of someone delivering mysterious wrapped boxes under a Yule tree...
"You take a tree, and decorate it with lights and sparkles," she said aloud. "Fir, or pine; I'm not sure if any such trees are in Gensokyo. Maybe we can make do with others; it has to be green, even in winter."
"Why?" the fairy asked.
"To make it pretty," Minerva responded instantly. "Everyone likes a decorated tree. It's quite a big job, though, so most of us just do it once a year, when we don't have other things to do. Because of the snow, you see. Nothing wrong with snow, of course," she added hastily, "but it makes it hard to perform all sorts of tasks outdoors. So we humans set up a big green tree inside our houses, and string coloured balls and sugar ornaments and lighted candles all around it."
Minerva fancied the fairy's brief silence to contain much busy thinking. "So," the fairy said slowly, "Christmas is a festival where you decorate trees?"
"That's one part of it," Minerva said. "There's also food. Lots of food. Goose is traditional, but really the only criteria is that there needs to be plenty of it."
"Ooh," the fairy said appreciatively. "How long does this festival last?"
Minerva considered this. How should she explain the significance of the twenty-fifth of December? Did fairies have calendars, upon which they marked off the dates? "Usually just around the winter solstice, when the day is shortest and the night is longest," she said. "Just for a day or two. Well, the night before, the day itself, and the next day. Each day means different things, but it's all related." And each day might mean different things to different people, but Minerva did not quite feel up to explaining Boxing Day and the Feast of Saint Stephen to the fairy at the moment.
"And it's like that all the time? Lots to eat and drink and play with?"
"In a manner of speaking. However," Minerva said sharply, holding up a warning finger, "it's not all for one person. It's for the whole family, and all your friends, as many as are willing to come. The idea isn't to take everything for yourself; it's to share with everyone."
"Oh," the fairy said, sounding disappointed. "That doesn't sound like much fun. Why would anyone do that?"
Why indeed? "It's something humans do. Well, no, I suppose that's not quite correct; it's something humans can do, if we so choose. Not everyone does, but... well, there's a story."
"Is it going to be a very long one?"
Minerva choked down a chuckle at the fairy's plaintive tone. "I'll summarize it. A man who doesn't understand why he should care about others is visited by a series of ghosts." The images conjured up by Dickens leapt forward, fresh in her mind. "Through this, he learns that should he continue to be miserly and selfish, he will end up dying alone and friendless. So that's a reason to be nice to others, whether during Christmas or other times."
So who is your Marley, Minerva Margatroid? And what message will they bring, to a foreign witch in a foreign land? What chains still bind you down, that you must break free?
"Is that why humans are supposed to share stuff with each other? So they can have lots of friends?"
Minerva held out her hands, palms up, weighing ideas. "Cause and effect, little lady. We practice charity and benevolence because we wish the recipients to be our friends. And because the recipients are our friends and loved ones, we practice charity and benevolence."
The fairy mumbled inaudibly for a while, trying to work this out in a way that she understood. "Ah, that's all too complicated!" she finally yelled. "Everything you've said is weird. Why should I even listen to you?"
Minerva stood; the alchemical process should have completed by now. "Well, you've not been found and caught by the seeker in your game. I hoped we could have a pleasant chat, while we both waited for our respective results."
"They're all probably still looking around that flower field," the fairy said. "The one with those big flowers in summer, that turn to look at the sun."
Was there a sunflower field in Gensokyo? Minerva vaguely recalled a mention of some such, during one of Miho's extended introductions into Gensokyo's more unusual geographical and botanical features. "Isn't that quite a distance away?" On the other side of the mountain, at that.
"Of course," the fairy said. "That's why they won't find me here, see?"
Presumably the fairies had not laid down the boundaries of this game, and the one conversing with Minerva now was contravening the spirit of hide-and-seek, if not the letter. "In any case, you might wish to consider this: the very best of us consider all others, even utter strangers, to be our friends, to share our own bounties with. No matter who they are."
"The best..." The fairy sounded thoughtful.
"Look, you can try an experiment of your own. Is there anyone you're particularly close to? Friends among the other fairies?"
"I'm the strongest!" the fairy proclaimed once again. "Everyone follows me!" Her confidence faltered. "Well, they should, anyway. Most of the time."
"Hm, that's not quite what I meant. Are there any of your fellow fairies whom you feel particularly happy to be with? Someone you may share your thoughts with, or someone you like playing together with more than others?"
The fairy fell mostly silent, interrupted only by the occasional sounds of intense cogitation. Minerva took this opportunity to collect the beaker and set it aside. As for the rest, ampoules and all, she wrapped haphazardly within the tablecloth.
"How do you make friends?"
Minerva took this obvious change in topic with a smile. "That's a very good question. It's different for everyone, but I find that one of the more effective methods is simply to approach them, and ask them if they are willing to be your friend. It works surprisingly well." For a start, anyhow. "Was there someone you had in mind?"
"She has pretty wings," the fairy said. "Maybe I'll go talk to her later!"
Wings... "Might I ask you a question in return, little lady? I'll make it worth your while."
"Of course! Ask me anything!"
"How do you fly?"
"Huh? You just fly. Can't you fly?"
"I tried, for a bit. It wasn't very successful." Minerva pondered. "What about gravity? That force which keeps us rooted to the ground, I mean. When you throw a rock up, gravity makes sure it comes down."
The fairy laughed. "I don't know what that 'gravity' thing is, but who cares about it? Who cares about rocks? You're cleverer than a rock, aren't you?"
"I do hope so," Minerva said dryly. "Well-answered, my fairy friend. As promised..."
She circled the clearing, close to the edge of the forest, searching for a patch of clear ground, or a small flat rock she could use as a plateau. Finding one, she pulled the yellow ribbon out of her hair, and carefully folded it, laying it on the rock.
"It's a Christmas present," Minerva said. "A little early, but it'll do." Japanese fairies appeared not to have the complex system of bartered favours and gifts that stories of European fae warned of. "You may keep it for yourself, but I would propose an extension of the experiment: try offering it as a Christmas present of your own, to that fairy friend of yours with the pretty wings."
"That's why it's an experiment. Wouldn't you like to find out for yourself?"
"Hm." The fairy sounded skeptical, but at least she did not dismiss the idea out of hand.
Minerva walked back to the covered clay beaker, and removed the sackcloth. The water had turned inky-black; Minerva unceremoniously upended the entire container, pouring out its contents onto the ground, heedless of the further pollution she was causing to the lake. Perhaps some time in the future, when she had completed her task, she might return here to make amends.
For the lake, and for the fairies.
The black water flowed in rivulets towards the lake, staining it with cloudy tendrils. A small jet-black lump of something solid fell out of the beaker, and it was this that Minerva pounced upon.
The lump crumbled apart easily. Minerva exhaled in relief when she saw the final result, glittering in the palm of her hand. She took out a clean handkerchief, and wrapped it safely within.
Time to clean up the rest of the ritual equipment. Minerva took the bundle containing the ampoules of precious magical extracts, now drained of any power. She dropped it into the hole she had dug earlier, and stood back.
"You may want to avert your eyes, little lady," she warned. The last of the ingredients she had prepared went into the hole: first a significant sprinkling of thin, needle-like silvery sticks, and finally a tiny, fragile porcelain container filled with a pungent liquid.
The flames shot up out of the hole, red and green and white, incinerating everything within. Minerva, her own eyes shut and face protected by her scarf, felt the pressure of intense heat almost pushing her back; she did not open her eyes again until the fire died down.
Only ashes remained in the hole, its sides blasted and melted.
There had been no reaction or outcry from the fairy to this pyrotechnical display. Minerva glanced at the rock she had left her ribbon on, and saw that it had disappeared.
No telling whether the fairy had taken her advice about Christmas cheer seriously. But it was a start.
Minerva filled the hole back in, tamping the earth down firmly. Having accomplished what she intended, the remainder of the equipment was returned to the wagon: oil burner, beaker, portable table, picnic blanket, spade, and all. Minerva was sweating from the exertion even in the cold, but declined to wash up using the lake water, even though it now appeared as pristine as it had been before her arrival.
She took the handkerchief out, and beheld the result of her alchemy. A tiny, perfect sphere of metal, no bigger than the tip of her little finger, tinged with the slightest hint of crimson. Unblemished, and unblemishable, it reflected the world around it in its mirrored surface. If one were to keep very still and be very quiet, one might even be able to detect the very, very faint humming of power.
Power enough, perhaps, to be cleverer than a rock.
The sphere went back in the handkerchief, which went back into her pocket. Minerva took the handles of the wagon once more.
"Seven years dead," she muttered to herself. "And travelling all the time."