Chapter 63 – Departure Delayed
"I know you don't want to, but we have to go back." Soudai was trying to convince his friend to stand up from the shrine's porch and make him snap out of his sulky mood. "Reimu's not coming back. There's nothing for us to do here, Ishimaru, we have to return to the village."
"We should have gone sooner…" Kyouichi muttered, barely showing any sings of perceiving what Soudai was trying to communicate to him.
"Damn right, we should have! And guess who we have to thank for that!" Yuujin's anger in this situation was perhaps justified, but it still annoyed a lot of people he was displaying it to.
"You shut up!" Soudai left his respect for elders at home as he snapped back at him. "Hey, just ignore the cretin; he's the one who elected you for club's president, so it's partially his fault as well."
"That's really some comfort talk, Soudai." Midori stepped up to them. The look at the sullen Kyouichi wasn't doing her much good either. "Come on… Get up."
"I see a Ryuuken patrol coming from the lake!" Hikaru, who has taken the scouting role announced to the whole club. At those words Kyouichi stood up like an animated puppet. Despite his miserable mood, he didn't want to be the reason the club's return to the safety of the Human Village would be delayed. As he wordlessly walked towards the torii, Soudai quickly blocked his path with his palm raised in a "halt" gesture.
"Wait a second."
"What is it, Soudai?"
"I know I said that we should get going and all, but... Do we really want to hand ourselves over to the Ryuuken? After all those months we've been trying to avoid their suspicion?"
"Would you rather risk the trip back to the village without anyone guarding us?"
Asakura ran his hand through his thick short hair as he considered Kyouichi's point. "Well, after our today's experience with Izayoi-san, yeah, I'm kind of willing to give it a try. Besides, if the Ryuuken find out that we were planning to leave Gensokyo today, they're going to tighten the village security so much that we're going to need a miracle to get to the shrine next time."
"Next time?! What next time? There is no next time! Don't you get it? We're stuck here!" It seemed as though Yuujin's behavior was starting to rub off onto Kyouichi.
"Until Reimu solves this incident! Were you not listening?" Soudai waved his palm in front of his friend's eyes to make sure he's still there with him.
"And when is that going to be, huh? In a month? A year? Besides… how are all 13 of us going to sneak back into the village undetected? No time-stopping maids are going to assist us now."
"That's one thing I'm glad for."
"I don't know what you're speculating about now, Asakura." said Midori. "We'll deal with the new problems as they come. We should stay focused on the here and now, don't you think?"
"I know, but…" and before he could finish his thought, he heard the sound of Kyouichi's sandals knocking as he was descending the stone stairs and waving both of his arms to get the attention of the approaching militiamen.
"Alright." Soudai shrugged resignedly. "You win." And as he breathed a sigh, he followed Kyouichi and the other club members down the stairs to the wooden signpost in the middle of the crossroad. Within a couple of minutes the pair of guards have reached the mentioned crossroad and met the outsiders. They weren't anyone Kyouichi would recognize, which was probably for the better.
"What are you lot doing here?" one of them asked. "I didn't know about any recent festival taking place at that shrine."
"Wait a minute…" the second Ryuuken stepped closer to take a better look. "Weren't these the people that Fukukane sent us photos of?"
"Oh, yeah! Those outsiders!" his colleague seemed to recall something. "Who let you past the gates?"
"We only want to get safely back to the village." Hikaru spoke in everyone's name.
"Alright, let's go, but you're all going straight to our headquarters until we get an explanation from you. This has to be filed."
The Ryuuken kept on marching southwards without any delay, and the band of outsiders walked closely behind them. Everyone was quiet the whole way. Even Yuujin got bored of cursing the whole world and just mulled over how he'd spend another undefined period of time in a place he never wished to visit.
When they finally got to the Ryuuken office in the center of the village, they were all thoroughly interrogated about how and why they escaped from the village. Every outsider was aware that this would have consequences that would only bring them problems in the future, but they had no choice but to fess up the truth. They weren't interrogated as a group, though. They called each of the outsiders one by one into a room with only one table, where a group of high-ranking militia officials was seated to ask questions and to file a report. To Kyouichi this whole situation seemed ridiculous. As if the outsiders have committed some severe crime, when all they wanted was to get home. They had no lawyers to help them and their lack of knowledge of Human Village's law system made any hopes of being able to defend themselves legally nearly impossible. Kyouichi's turn to answer their questions was here. A pair of guards stepped out from the room: "Ishimaru Kyouichi." They read the name on the list of outsiders they received. The young outsider wanted to get this farce over with as soon as possible. Standing up from his chair, he walked up to the guards and entered through the door, which the two armed men have closed and locked behind him.
"Ah, Ishimaru-san." a voice too familiar to be mistaken for anyone else's addressed him as he entered. To Kyouichi's great surprise, it wasn't just the Ryuuken elite who was interested in getting the first-hand information, but the village elder himself. Kyouichi found it hard to believe that the planned and failed escape of the outsiders has managed to cause such a stir.
"Fukukane-san? What are you doing here?"
"No, no, no, Ishimaru-san. We'll be the only ones in this room who's going to ask questions. Your only concern is to give us the answers. Preferably truthful." It wasn't the same nice and smiling elder Fukukane that Kyouichi remembered. His stern face and his cold tone were leaving the outsider with an unpleasant feeling in his stomach.
"I doubt I'll tell you anything that my associates haven't told you already." he decided to act confident to mask his insecurity.
"That's what we are hoping for, actually. The reason why we're questioning you individually, is to make sure all of your testimonies match, thus increasing the likelihood of their truthfulness." The elder's lips shaped a weak smile as he adjusted his position on the chair and interlocked his fingers where he rested his chin. "So, Ishimaru-san… When you first came to my office half a year ago, I took you for a decent and polite, law-abiding young man, worthy of becoming a Human Village citizen. Who would have thought that you'd turn out to be such a rebellious delinquent?"
"Delinquent? As if I had broken the law."
"As a matter of fact, you have. You've disobeyed an elder's regulation, which is the same as violating the law. But you can relax. That doesn't make you a criminal yet." he then looked into a document that he had on the table and glanced back at Kyouichi. "According to this file, you're in the position of a president of a club at the Kamishirasawa Academy. The inconspicuous name "Transfer Students' Club" doesn't reveal much about the club's activities, but the member list almost perfectly matches the list of all the people being interrogated here today. That leads me to believe you were the one who organized this rather foolish endeavor."
"Is it really so wrong if we wanted to go home?"
"I said we'll be the ones asking questions here, Ishimaru-san." the elder emphasized with a louder voice and a frown. "But if you're asking that, I assume you're not denying that you were the one who forged the plan of escape."
"Fukukane-san, please… we haven't done anything wrong! You can't keep people in the village against their will."
"Silence!" Toshimi Fukukane slammed his fist against the table. Kyouichi had never seen the man so angry.
That's when one of the Ryuuken cleared his throat to calm the situation down. "Come on, Fukukane, is it really necessary? Why don't you just let us do our job and lead the interrogation?"
The man looked a few years younger than the elder, his graying black hair was styled like that of the samurai – forehead shaved up to the apex of the scalp and the hair done up in a bun. If Kyouichi unimagined his face, the man's stature reminded him a bit of his former employer, Daisuke Shimizu - a bit plump and not too tall. His uniform was almost like any other Ryuuken's, but the decorative patterns were much richer and exquisite. Instead of golden stripes on the shoulders to indicate the rank, he had a pattern that looked like a star or a lotus flower. None of the other men had the same pattern on their uniforms. Judging by the informal tone, in which he spoke with Fukukane, Kyouichi assumed him to be the very leader of the whole militia and his authority was almost as big as that of the elder himself.
"As you wish, Ogata, but I'm still curious to hear what this youth has to say." the elder sighed and allowed the man question Kyouichi in his stead.
"So, Ishimaru-san," the elite Ryuuken glanced at the file and smiled, "I believe this is the first time we met, and as an outsider, it wouldn't surprise me if you've never heard of me before. I am Noburu Ogata."
"Uh, nice to meet you, Ogata-san." Kyouichi bowed.
"That's Grandmaster Ogata to you." the village elder brought Kyouichi out of his ignorance.
"Please, Fukukane. There's no need flaunt our titles here. But yes, I'm in charge of the Ryuuken militia." Noburu replied and waved his hand, as if it was no big deal. He certainly didn't look like a grandmaster with that laid-back attitude of his.
"Sorry for being rude, but I only wanted to know why Elder Fukukane was so insistent about making us stay in the village. And why were all those walls built anyway?"
The Ryuuken leader smirked and shifted his gaze at the village elder. "Well, Elder, why don't you explain the reason for the fortification construction to a curious citizen?"
"Am I the one being interrogated here? The reason for the walls is to make the Human Village a safer place."
"Safer from what exactly?" Kyouichi raised his eyebrows. "From youkai who can easily FLY over them? Or was it to keep us outsiders rounded up?"
"Is that what it seemed like to you? Because you've got it all wrong, Ishimaru-san." Fukukane shook his head denyingly. "The walls prevent little children from wandering off into the wilderness, they help keep the trade under control and protect the villagers from attacks of wild animals. They were rebuilt based on a petition from the villagers themselves."
"That's all good, but the regulations you put in effect to prevent anyone who doesn't have any business outside the village from leaving the place made a lot of people feel imprisoned." the outsider argued.
"Strange, because you're the first one to complain about it."
"We only wanted to get home. We weren't putting anyone else in danger, but ourselves. Besides, the outside world isn't as dangerous as you think it is."
"I… can understand and respect that." Grandmaster Ogata nodded agreeingly. "But while you did so, you managed to make us realize the huge flaws in our security. I can already tell you that many Ryuuken will lose their jobs because of this, or at least be demoted. To allow one person to sneak out undetected is one thing. But thirteen… I'd be very curious to know how you did that. We already interrogated your club members, but we'd like to hear it from you as well."
"And they probably told you that we had an accomplice."
"Go on." Noburu prompted him to continue.
"A certain Izayoi Sakuya from the Scarlet Devil Mansion."
"Yes, Izayoi… How ingenious. A time and space manipulator. With her abilities, she could commit a robbery and murder in broad daylight in the village square and nobody would notice until she'd be long gone." the Ryuuken leader noted as he scribbled something into the interrogation report. "So she helped you out of the village, but there was some unexpected turn of events, am I right?"
"Yes, she took Midori Iwakami, one girl from our group, because her vampire mistress needed to be fed fresh blood." Kyouichi explained.
"M-hm… and Iwakami-san told us that the shrine maiden came to her rescue. What can you tell us about that?"
"I can't tell you anything. I wasn't there to see what happened. We ran to the Hakurei shrine as soon as Sakuya was gone with Midori and asked Reimu to help us, so she went to save Midori."
"I see… And now for the biggest question of the day – what made you people return back to Human Village when you were so close to returning to the outside world?"
"The Great Barrier stopped us. Not even Reimu could get out to the outside world anymore. Right after that she went to Kazemura, thinking it has something to do with the temple they discovered there. And that's about all there is to our story."
"Hm… that village sure is a newspaper headline stealer these days."
"Sir, we already have a crew of 20 men stationed there." another Ryuuken informed him.
"See, Fukukane? We have much bigger problems to worry about than some bunch of outsiders outsmarting our gate guards." the grandmaster chuckled.
"But they broke the regulation, regardless. Justice demands some retribution." said the elder resolutely.
"Very well… according to the currently-effective law, the penalty for breaking an elder's regulation is a monetary fine of 5000 yen. You can either pay it right now, or it'll be deducted from your next salary." the Ryuuken leader announced to Kyouichi. "I don't think there's any need to call in the rest of the outsiders for interrogation. I believe 5 matching testimonies are enough to pronounce them as truthful, and now that we know how they snuck out, we can dismiss them and call it a day."
"And you're just going to leave it like that?" the elder turned his bewildered face at the grandmaster. "How are you going to fix that security problem?"
"There's not much we can do when someone like Izayoi-san decides to use her powers, I'm afraid. Considering how we never had any problems with her in the past, we shouldn't let this little abuse of her power to alarm us."
"Are you listening to yourself, Ogata?! That woman kidnapped a civilian to extract blood for her vampire mistress, and you're telling me she isn't our concern?! Don't make me begin to regret my decision for naming you into your current position."
"I hate to interrupt," Kyouichi reminded the two that he was still in the room, "but even though that wasn't very nice of her, I somehow agree with Grandmaster Ogata. Sakuya-san didn't intend to kill anyone. You already questioned Midori, right? If she told you what she told me, then the Scarlet Devil Mansion really isn't that fearsome as they say. And here…" he reached into his pocket and put some of his last savings on the table. The money that he originally meant to give to Reimu after she would have taken him across the barrier. "Five thousand. Can I go now?"
"If it was only up to me, I'd say yes." the grandmaster shrugged and cast a glance at Fukukane who refusingly shook his head.
"Not so fast." the elder delayed his leave. "I don't want you to get into contact with Izayoi ever again. Let this fine you just paid be a warning to you. Next time you violate a regulation, the law gives me the authority to exact greater sanctions. And repeated violation equals a criminal act."
"I'll keep that in mind, Fukukane-san, but… I still don't understand why you'd want to have everyone in the village under such strict control all of a sudden."
"Isn't it obvious? I do it for your safety! The walls, the regulations, the annoying gate guards… It's all for the good of the people. Especially people like yourself – outsiders. Human Village has never had this many outsiders living here since the erection of the Great Hakurei Border. We have to protect you somehow."
"Reimu showed me the letter you've sent to her back in Satsuki. The one where you explained that Human Village's economy would crumble with outsiders flowing in at such a rate." Kyouichi could see the elder's face turning a little paler as he mentioned it. "To me it sounded more like you wanted to get rid of us. Why suddenly so much effort to protect a mostly un-educated group of people with zero magical potential? We're more of a liability than an asset to this village."
"Well, that's simple. Even if you don't understand politics, it should be pretty clear to you that if something bad should happen to any of you, it'd be me who'd ultimately take the blame. Definitely not good for reputation. That's why I kindly ask you not to take these regulations lightly, even if they're constricting and annoying. Especially in these times when another big incident is on the horizon."
"I only want to know one thing, Fukukane-san."
"Heh, haven't I already answered enough of your questions?" the elder frowned, but let the outsider ask regardless.
"This one is the only one that matters to me now."
"When Reimu manages to return the barrier to its original state, will you allow her to send us across?"
"Only under the condition that you'll be properly escorted out of the village by either Hakurei Reimu or a squad of militiamen."
"So you will?" Kyouichi again felt a faint speck of hope. Perhaps he misjudged Elder Fukukane's intentions after all.
"It all depends on how well the shrine maiden handles this incident now."
"Wow… thank you!" a sincere thankful bow was how the outsider expressed himself.
"Be off, young man." Grandmaster Ogata gave the outsider permission to leave the room. "And try not to get on the Elder's bad side. He's a good man, but he can be unpleasant when angered."
"Uh… yes, I noticed." Kyouichi felt great relief when he was standing up from the chair. "We'll try not to get into trouble with the law." And then he left.
The leader of militia scribbled an autograph on the last report and put it into a folder. "So Sakuya-san lent them a hand. And I was already looking forward to firing some of our… less competent personnel. But now I can't really blame anyone, can I?"
"You try to figure out a way to prevent such things from happening again." said Fukukane.
Ogata replied with an amused chuckle. "Sure… we could recruit Izayoi-san into the militia. That'd help us a lot."
"I was being serious."
"Of course, you were, Toshi-kun…" the grandmaster turned to his colleagues. "Coffee, anyone?"
About the same time when Kyouichi was being interrogated, Reimu met up with the girls from the Scarlet Devil Mansion in the archeologist's tent. Even when she was nearing the village of Kazemura, she, Aya and Marisa could see that the only access into the temple was barricaded, guarded and no quarry workers were allowed to go near it.
"Ah, Reimu's here." Remilia let Patchouli know of the girls' arrival.
"I'll make some more tea then." Sakuya got to work right away.
Remilia even brought her favorite chair and a few luxuries from her mansion, so the tent looked more like her little palace than Patchouli's workspace.
"You girls weren't exaggerating when you said the atmosphere here was tense. It looks like a tengu colony now."
"Indeed." Aya confirmed. "I wonder if Momiji-san was relocated from the mountain to watch over this village."
"I'm back, Patchouli-san~." Akyuu ran to the librarian's table to greet her.
"Good afternoon." she welcomed everyone with a half-hearted greeting. Mostly because she still had her eyes focused on a book about Egyptian hieroglyphs.
"Egyptians?" Marisa's curiosity was instantly piqued by the book's cover. "Why are you reading that? Don't tell me they sailed all the way to Japan just so they could build a pyramid."
"I'm not saying that." the bookworm muttered back. "But you wouldn't believe how the symbols on the ruins here bear some similarities to the Egyptian hieroglyphs too."
"Eh? You're kidding me, aren't you? Give me that book~." the magician reached for the tome, but Patchouli pulled it away out of her reach.
"Come on! Just a peek." Marisa retried her attempt.
"I said no!"
"Don't make me use force~."
It was only a matter of time before they'd end up on the ground and so they did. "See what you did?" Marisa stood up and dusted her dress off.
"I did?!" Patchouli's flustered face was glaring at her like a rattlesnake that was poked by a stick.
"Girls? Girls!" Remilia stepped into their childish display of stubbornness. "Let's work on how to get into the temple already. We need a plan. Patchy, figured out anything yet?"
"Negotiating with the Kazemura elder and the commander of the Tengu seem to be the most reasonable option."
"Most peaceful maybe, but reasonable?" the vampire showed her a doubting smirk. "How many times have you already tried negotiating with them?"
Patchouli paused and gazed upwards as she tried to recall. "Three. But they were all unofficial. However, tomorrow the first official negotiation will be held in the Kazemura's village hall."
"Does this random pile of houses even have a village hall?" Marisa raised her eyebrow.
"How ignorant." Patchouli pouted as she stood up from the ground and picked up her book. "That's the place I've been to almost as much as this tent. If it wasn't for my effort, the yama-bito would still be breaking their pickaxes over the upper layer of the hardened magmatic rock. But I managed to get the elder's permission to use outside-world explosives. I even got an invitation to take part in this negotiation, so I hope they'll listen to reason. I've got some convincing arguments that should open those stubborn tengu eyes."
"Hey~!" Aya called out in protest. "Who are you calling stubborn? I hope it's the White Wolves."
"Even though I believe it to be an utter waste of time, I'll let you go to your little tea party with the tengu and yamba-bito. I already have my own plan thought through…" in the dimly lighted interior of the tent, the white or Remilia's teeth when she grinned gave some of the girls chills when they looked at her.
"Please, don't do anything stupid, Remi." Patchouli requested, and Reimu couldn't agree more with her plea.
"Yeah, what she said. You've already reached your troublemaking quota for this month."
"I'm not making trouble. I'm solving an incident here."
While relieved that he got out of the Ryuuken headquarters with only a monetary fine, Kyouichi's mood still remained as sullen as when he was leaving the Hakurei Shrine. His friends from the club felt the same way, so he didn't even blame them for not waiting for him when his interrogation was over. Just like him, they too needed to take their time and not be bothered by anyone. The hardest part of the day for him was perhaps not facing the fact that he couldn't get out of Gensokyo, but the necessity to explain the situation to the Saitou family, who by now most likely believed him to be in the outside world. Kyouichi wouldn't believe how hard it could be to knock on a door.
"Just a minute~." That was Minako's voice that answered the knocking and Kyouichi could hear her footsteps drawing closer to the main door, which slid open after a moment.
"Gods! Kyouichi… What are you still doing here? I thought you went home. Did you forget something?"
After taking a breath, the outsider shook his head. "No, Minako-san. I returned…"
"I don't know why. But the shrine maiden couldn't take us across the border." He then lifted a pleading gaze up to Minako's eyes. "I know you'll probably say no, but… could I still stay here with you a little longer?"
"Of course you can. Why would I say no? Come in." she beckoned him. "I have to go back to work soon, but I made dinner, so help yourself if you're hungry."
"What will Mizuto say, though?"
"The same thing I'm telling you now, no doubt. Now don't stand there and hurry up inside."
With a feeling of awkward reluctance looming over his head Kyouichi Ishimaru entered the Saitou house once again. Only this time he didn't feel all that welcome. He knew that Minako would surely never tell him directly, but he felt as though as his unplanned return was once again preventing this family from living its normal life.
"I'm sorry about your predicament, Kyouichi. I hope Reimu-san fixes the problem soon."
Even this remark of Minako's made the outsider believe that she was just politely telling him not to overstay his welcome.
"Yeah, the sooner I get out of here the better…" he muttered in a spaced-out state.
"Excuse me?" Minako turned her head to Kyouichi, as she didn't catch his words very clearly.
"I hope Reimu solves the problem soon too."
"Well, even if she doesn't, you'll always have a place to go." she comforted him as they entered the kitchen. "Ah, look at the time! My lunch break is almost up. The kids are still at school and Mizuto returns home tomorrow evening, so if you don't want to sit and mope alone in an empty house, there's a spare key on that shelf."
She left the kitchen in haste to grab her bag. "I didn't yet have the time to clutter up the guest room, so everything is left as when you left this morning. Or if you need someone to talk to, why don't you come with me to the shop?"
"I appreciate your concern, Minako-san, but I think I'll be better off alone for a while."
"Suit yourself~. See you in the evening then. Bye now~." she offered Kyouichi one more smile before she left him alone in the house.
At first he thought that time spent in loneliness and silence would bring him comfort, but it turned out to bring the exactly opposite effect. He could hear the voices of his friends blaming him for not planning the departure sooner. The ticking of the clock hanging over the kitchen's door was only enhancing these self-depreciating thoughts and unsettling Kyouichi to the point where he couldn't bear it anymore. He rose from the table, walked to the shelf where Minako pointed earlier and took the spare key for the house. Anywhere would be better than here right now. He left his fully loaded backpack inside, no need to lug it around the village when he was stuck here for an unknown period of time. He left and locked the door, heading down the street towards the fireplace, further past the intersection to the market square, all the way to the house of Naota Tanisake. He knew that the old carpenter was likely to be at home at this time of day, but when he knocked on its oaken door, the one to answer was not the house's owner.
"Oh, hello, Kyouichi." Midori welcomed him at the doorstep. She seemed only mildly surprised by her friend's visit. "Come in."
"Hey, stop acting like you own the place." Kyouichi scolded her. "I'm here to see the old man, is he in?"
"Sure. Hold on…" she turned her head and called: "Tanisake-san~! You have a visitor~!"
A little while later, the old carpenter showed up in the hallway. "Hey, kid, don't just stand there. Let him in, Midori."
"I did, but he insisted I called you first." the girl pouted as she stepped aside to allow Kyouichi to step inside. And while Kyouichi was putting his sandals away, Naota disappeared into the kitchen, from where both young outsiders could hear the characteristic sound of cork being pulled from a bottle followed by the sound of pouring liquid.
"Well, looks like Tanisake-san is fixing us some depression remedy. But that's not going to solve anything, is it?"
The two of them entered the kitchen and visually confirmed what they heard. The old man really did open a sake bottle and filled three glasses. When Midori and Kyouichi entered, he didn't even say anything.
"So… Midori already told you what happened, didn't she?"
"I heard the story." Naota confirmed by a nod. "Drink up. And no excuses."
Kyouichi and Midori looked at each other, and in order not to upset or insult their host, they each picked a glass and together with Naota drank it all up without talking back.
"Ahhh…. You know," the old man started as he sat on the chair, "Your situation is probably even worse than mine. At least I was kept in the blissful ignorance that there is no way out of Gensokyo, and I was just slowly coping with it as I lived here. But you…" he closed his eyes and shook his head, as if he disagreed with or disapproved of the reality, "You believed there was a way and you had your hopes crushed."
"Hey, Tenisake-san. We're not giving up yet." Midori proved the old man wrong by demonstrating that she still had more than ample dose of hope left in her heart. "We have done our part and we did the best we could. Now it's time for Reimu-san to play hers."
"Hope for the best and expect the worst. That's what my dad always used to tell me." said the old carpenter as he refilled everyone's glasses. "That way you can only end up pleasantly surprised. I'd be an ass if I discouraged you from your goal or if I told you not to trust that orphaned miko, but the way I see it… things aren't looking very well."
"Naota, please…" Kyouichi said before he decided to let the content of the glass flow into him again. "I don't know how long this will take and what I'm asking of you might come as rude, but that renovated cabin… can I use it?"
"I've already torn that contract of ours into pieces and burned it in the fireplace as soon as Midori told me what happened, so according to the rest of the official papers, that building is now yours to use. Oh, hold on a second…" he reached inside his breast pocket and presented an iron key. "You don't want to bug the Saitous, huh?"
"Yes, you're right."
"Take good care of it then." said the old man as he handed the key to Kyouichi. "You're going to have to move all the furniture into it yourself, though, and you might take some of the stuff we originally found there back into the cabin as well."
"From all of Fumiaki's junk I managed to sell quite a lot of old and otherwise useless wares in a yard sale. But nobody was interested in buying his collection of curiosities or his hunting gear, including the crossbow."
"Does that old hunk of wood even work?" Midori asked him with doubt.
"Oh yeah, it still does. I already tried it out."
"Really?" the girl's expression switched from doubting to a surprised one.
"Maybe you can find some use for it, kid. Perhaps as a means of defense against a youkai or something…" Naota suggested. "It doesn't look like much, but that thing packs a mighty punch. Shot a bolt right through a barrel full of sand."
"But Keine-sensei told us physical attacks don't work very well against youkai." Midori recalled some of the basic knowledge from the Youkai Typology classes.
"A good hit can buy you precious time to get away or at least try it."
"Maybe you should have the bolts blessed at a shrine or something." the female outsider suggested.
"Or maybe you'll just follow Fumiaki's way of life and hunt some boar with it." Naota chuckled and downed another glass. "Just hope you don't end up like him too."
"Thanks for everything, Naota, really." Kyouichi pocketed the key and drank the sake as well.
"Heck, you helped me renovate it, so I can't say you don't deserve it. Just that roof could have been better." the old master craftsman smirked at Kyouichi in a provoking way.
"Both me and Soudai never even helped build a roof before, so how could you expect us to do an equally good job as you?"
"Well, it's you who's going to live in there from now on, so if you'll be woken up by cold water dripping on your forehead after a rainy night, then you'll realize how important it is to do things properly."
"I'll just improvise somehow. That's what I always do."
And so, after asking Soudai, Daniel and a handful of other friends to lend him a hand, Kyouichi managed to furnish the renovated hunter's cabin on that very day. It wasn't anything special; just the necessary pieces of furniture have been brought in. The Saitous were reluctant about the idea of him living separately at first. The young Ishimaru had to be extra stubborn to convince them that it'd be for the benefit of both parties.
"You know you can still come here and stay here at any time, Kyouichi-kun." Minako Saitou showed her welcoming smile. "Mizuto's going to be surprised when he comes home, but I think he'll handle it well. We'll be sure to drop by for a visit every now and then."
Kyouichi reciprocated the smile and bowed. "Sorry if I'm being repetitive, but thanks for everything, Minako-san. You too, Chitose and Tadao." He bowed once more to Minako's children, who watched him from behind their mom with mixed feelings.
"I'll be still waking you up on my way to school." Chitose declared.
"Yeah, me too." her brother seconded.
"At least allow us to accompany you to your new home." Minako asked Kyouichi to wait while she put her sandals on. The children followed suit.
"Are they your friends?" she cast a glance at the small group of people waiting for Kyouichi on the street.
"Yes, that's Soudai and the blonde guy's Daniel. They helped me move all the stuff inside, so I owe them one.
"Unbelievable, even the guards let me through the gate when I asked them nicely." Daniel mentioned what seemed strange to him. "It's as if the Ryuuken had a change in management or something."
"It wouldn't help us much if you only could help us carry the heavy stuff only to the gate." Soudai remarked and stretched his arms. "Maan, I'm beat. I'll be expecting some compensation for this. Preferably a cold and refreshing one." He directed those words at Kyouichi, who didn't seem to object, judging by his facial expression.
"Sure, I'll treat you for a few beers after I'll show Minako-san and the kids that I won't be living in a cave."
"Come now, we never said anything like that." Mrs. Saitou said to her defense. And so they went to the cabin that needed so much work to become what it was now. Daniel was right; the Ryuuken at the gate were merely standing there, not pestering anyone about their business outside the gate, unless they were coming in and out with heavy loads of goods either in carts or in bags. Kyouichi wondered whether the village elder or the Ryuuken grandmaster hasn't applied any new regulations after today's interrogation of the outsiders. Either way, it felt much more comfortable to pass through the gates of Human Village now.
"Wow, has this cute little hut been standing here this whole time?" Minako found the building's current state almost impossible to associate with the dilapidated old shack it used to be.
"You even have a little garden." Chitose liked the small flower patch near the entrance, separated into two parts by a stone pavement.
"But that roof…" Tadao couldn't help, but to notice the imperfections that were caused by Kyouichi's and Soudai's handiwork.
"Hey, it's not our fault the men responsible for renovation suddenly took off on us to erect the walls." Soudai went on the defensive.
"Since the walls are already finished, why don't you ask them again?" Minako suggested, to which Kyouichi only waved his palm dismissively.
"Don't bother. It'll serve its purpose just fine. You'll see…" and after he inserted the key into the lock and turned it, he swung open the door to reveal the newly-furnished interior. "Well? What do you think?" He stepped inside to allow his companions a full view of the cozy little room that had everything it needed to make it an inviting and comfortable home. Well… almost everything.
"And the toilet?" Minako asked as she turned her head everywhere around, only to find something missing.
"Oh. There's a latrine outside behind the hut." Kyouichi pointed through one of the windows looking out to the back yard.
"Ugh… I figured there just had to be some downside to it." she sympathetically patted Kyouichi's shoulder. "You're probably not going to like winter."
"But toilet aside, I could get used to living here." Daniel nodded as he took a one last look at the arrangement of the furniture. "It's got a fireplace, a stove, a water heater…"
"And you can store the food down in that hollow space I accidentally found the other day." Soudai complemented him.
"I must say I almost envy you a little." Minako admitted. "Naota-san may be old, but the craftsmanship is top-notch as always. Have you thanked him for letting you use this house?"
"Of course I did. But I'm not sure if that's going to be enough."
"I'm sure he had his reason for doing so. And if I were in his place, I'd do the same." said the tailor.
"It's a little cramped in here, but at least you won't have to share with anyone else." Chitose summarized the room as she took a seat in an old, but comfortable armchair in front of the fireplace.
"Ah, I just figured I'm almost out of firewood." Kyouichi suddenly realized the lack of an important commodity. "Is there anyone who sells it in the village?"
"Yes, you can either buy it from the woodcutters or you can gather it yourself." Minako replied.
"Not even if the wood was overpriced as hell!" Soudai was certainly quick to show his disagreeing reaction to the idea when he recalled why he had to spend over a week in Eientei's care. "Let the woodcutters risk their lives. I know better than that… And you, Ishimaru, should too."
"The days are still warm, but the nights can be pretty chilly in this valley." Minako gave a friendly warning. "You'd do well to stock up. But anyhow… a lovely little cabin you have to spend the time in until Reimu solves the incident. By the way, do you know how to cook?"
"Enough to save myself from starvation." Kyouichi replied.
"You might also consider buying coal, as it has a greater heat output and burns longer. However coal is a pricy commodity here. Only the wealthy families can afford to use it throughout the whole winter."
"Mom, don't talk as if the outsiders would have to wait here till winter." Chitose's face popped up from behind the back of the armchair. "Reimu-san is awesome at solving incidents. She'll fix the barrier problem in no time."
"You're right." Minako nodded. "Sorry. I didn't mean it that way."
"And if not her, maybe even some youkai will take initiative." her son added.
"Eeeeh? Why would a youkai need to take the initiative? Reimu-sama will have the incident resolved before any youkai can realize there is something wrong, you'll see." the young girl took a defensive stance whenever anyone would dare to doubt Reimu's competence in front of her.
"You're totally obsessed with her, big sis. She's your idol and role model."
"I'm not obsessed. But it's true that she's my idol. Of course someone like her wouldn't need help in solving a minor little problem like that."
Tadao had a slightly different opinion about the shrine maiden, though. "Unlike you, Chitose, I sometimes read dad's newspaper. And recently it said that Reimu's having trouble finding the culprit."
"Eeeh? Tengu crap!" his older sister dismissed his argument with one wave of her palm.
"Watch the language, young lady." her mother stepped in to reprimand her, making little Chitose redden in her face.
"Ah, sorry, mom."
"I think it's just about time to go. Sorry for the bother, Kyouichi."
"No, it's okay. Come again any time."
"Very well," Minako smiled and looked at her two children. "Let's go, kids."
"Yes~." Both siblings chirped together as they trotted to their mother.
Kyouichi's friends stayed a while longer, but as the hour grew late and all the guests went home, it was time for Kyouichi to spend the first night in his new home. There was just barely enough firewood in the basket to last until morning and just enough tinder to light it.
As the warm, inviting fire crackled in the fireplace and Kyouichi rested his tired body on the old armchair in front of it, he gradually became aware of how quiet it was in the cabin. Just then he began to realize the true meaning of the word "solitude". For the first time this so-far unknown feeling struck him with such a force. He never felt that way even with his mother's regular business trips to many Japanese cities. The friends he had made here haven't abandoned him yet, but Kyouichi felt so distant from everybody that it seemed as though he began to walk the path of the hermit. And the biggest reason for that was his today's failure to return home. None of his friends told it to him straight in the face, but he had no idea what they all thought of him now. What if they blamed him just as much as Yuujin? A question to which only a mind-reader would know an answer. But even without a third eye, Kyouichi was still certain of one thing. That none of his friends could blame him more than he blamed himself right now. His intentions were good and his plan made the most sense, but as the old saying goes: "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions."
"Should I have planned this exodus to take place sooner, or should I have gone home when I first had the chance to?"
It was no use dwelling on what was and what should have been. He needed to refocus his attention as well as his best effort on the present.
"What do I need to do now?" he asked aloud. "Is waiting really the best and the only thing I can do?"
With his mind unable to come up with an answer, Kyouichi opened the window ajar and settled himself on an old, creaky bed.
"Back to school again tomorrow, huh?"
He really wasn't in the mood for more lessons, for his underage classmates or for Keine-sensei. And most of all, showing up in front of all those outsiders whose hopes he disappointed on this day made him uncomfortable like a bed of nails. But even though his brain would still want to continue its work of self-depreciation, his body was so tired that he drifted off into sleep before the sun had set.
With daylight gradually creeping away from Gensokyo, the usually quiet mining settlement of Kazermura was still bustling with activity. This was mostly thanks to the strong presence of the tengu watchmen, who were occupying the village ever since the last major fairy attack. As the prospectors were slowly leaving the quarry pit, only the militant folk of both youkai races remained stationed at the temple, making sure no trespassers would sneak in, and of course, that neither of the parties involved in the negotiations would violate the agreement. It was apparent that neither of the sides trusted one another. Perhaps all this dispute needed was an unbiased mediator such as Patchouli, or simply a third party to take advantage of the tense atmosphere between the tengu and the yama-bito.
"I'm gonna get something to eat." Marisa told Reimu, who was resting at the edge of the quarry pit with her legs dangling in the air. "Want me to bring you something?"
"No, thanks. I'm not hungry right now." Reimu would probably not notice even if she was hungry. Only the thoughts of what lies within the temple were keeping her mind preoccupied.
"You look rather spaced-out." the witch couldn't help but to notice. "You sure you don't want anything?"
"Don't make me repeat myself, Marisa. I said I'm fine." the usual, slightly grumpy reply made Marisa breathe a relieved sigh. It was still the "good old" Reimu speaking and not some malevolent spirit possessing her body.
"Okay~. Suit yourself, but don't say I didn't ask you."
The blonde turned away and headed off for the Hearth tavern. Almost as soon as she disappeared from Reimu's sight, someone else has come to pester her.
"It's almost time…" a young girl's voice sounded from behind her. "I don't even need a parasol in this time of the day."
"What do you want, Remilia?" the shrine maiden didn't even need to look behind her to identify the speaker.
"That's my question to you." Remilia returned the question to its sender. "Does idle sitting here all day and waiting satisfy you, or you'd rather already know what's inside that temple?"
"I'm just giving Patchouli a chance to negotiate for our cause. If that fails, I'll take the necessary measures to get inside."
"I'm giving her a chance too." the vampire replied as she took a seat next to Reimu. "But why waste a good day when an opportunity is already parading itself right now here in front of us?"
"Beating the guards at the temple? A child's play, but when they alarm everyone, we'll have about 200 angry youkai after us. Not to mention that we'd lose all our magic once we'd make it inside."
Remilia's reaction to Reimu's musings was a slowly widening smile turning into a grin.
"Why are you grinning like that?"
"I'm just pleasantly surprised and amused that you actually considered my suggestion without calling me names and doubting my sanity."
At those words Reimu's face took on a hue close to that of her hair ribbon.
"Of course it's a stupid idea to break into the temple now!" the shrine maiden's attitude took a 180 degree turn in an instant. "If I break the status quo now, then it'll make me look like the culprit. But if I'll have no other choice…" she left the sentence unfinished.
"How badly do you want to have this incident resolved, Reimu?" the vampire girl turned her unusually serious face at the miko.
"As soon and as simply as possible, but I also want to keep my face as Gensokyo's peacekeeper while I'm at it."
"Then we're on the same boat."
"Really?" Reimu rolled her eyes.
"Really." Remilia nodded. "We just see things slightly differently."
"And how do you see them?"
"I can see that Patchouli's negotiation most likely isn't going to end much in our favor."
"Is that what your fate-vision eyes really see?" Reimu posed her question in a tone of mistrust. "Or are you just trying to manipulate me into doing what you want?"
"Both, actually." the Scarlet Devil answered bluntly without shame.
"Hmph." an amused chuckle from Reimu was followed by pointing out Remilia's minor self-contradiction. "I thought you said you were giving her a chance."
"The fate of her negotiation is not set in stone, so anything may happen. I'm simply saying what the most possible outcome is."
"And you're still giving her a chance? Did you even tell her about your fortune-telling observation?"
At that question Remilia quickly placed her palm on Reimu's shoulder and silently pressed her index finger against her own lips to hush the shrine maiden. "Keep it down, or she'll hear us." she whispered and pointed at the purple tent, which stood just a couple of meters behind them.
"So you didn't tell her…" Reimu muttered her deduction based on Remilia's response. "Isn't she your best friend?"
"She is. And that's part of the reason why I haven't told her about it. If I did, she'd be demoralized and she wouldn't try her best." the vampire explained.
"I see… And the other part of the reason?"
"Well… That is…" Remilia hesitated a bit in her reply. "Because I want to use her presence at tomorrow's negotiation as a diversion and to buy us some more time to explore the temple. She's got quite the lengthy speech prepared last time I checked."
"I'm not sure I quite get it." The shrine maiden scratched her head. "I thought you were planning something today. And how exactly is Patchouli going to buy us time?"
"I only intend to confirm one theory today…" she gave a cryptic answer. "As for the importance of Patchouli's presence at tomorrow's little summit, I already asked Sakuya to do a little snooping around, and she managed to learn something interesting… Right, Sakuya?"
"That is indeed correct, my lady." A third female voice responded out of the blue.
"Whoa!" Reimu almost jumped up from surprise. She quickly turned her head to look behind. There, dressed in her daily uniform, as if she had been present there the whole time, stood the elegant silver-haired maid of the Scarlet Devil. "When did she get here?" Reimu blurted out, before she made a brief thoughtful pause. "Actually… never mind." she quickly gave up on her demand for an answer as soon as she recalled the girl's ability.
Remilia then gestured at Reimu and said: "Reimu here would like to know the details of your investigation."
"Calmly skip the details. I just want to hear the results." the brunette maiden asked Sakuya to cut to the chase.
"As you wish." Sakuya shrugged and cleared her throat. "Tomorrow's negotiations for the privilege to have an access into the temple will be held in the afternoon in Kazemura's village hall."
"Is that it? Everyone knows that already!" the miko hissed in slight annoyance.
"Let her talk, Reimu. This sounds like it's going to be interesting, ze." Marisa managed to return from the tavern just in time to catch Sakuya's debriefing. In Reimu's spaced-out state, it was no wonder that she didn't notice the witch's footsteps and that her sudden return managed to startle her almost as much as Sakuya did a moment ago.
Sakuya cast a sidelong glance Marisa's way and hesitated to speak until Remilia gave her a mute gesture that it was okay.
"Maybe it's better if she hears this too."
"Oh, that sounds like you girls are having some secret meeting to plan a heist or something."
"Not that far from the truth, to be honest." said the vampire. "Continue, Sakuya…"
"Yes." the maid bowed and carried on. "I snuck into the tengu command tent and copied their guard plan."
Marisa began to grin and her eyes glittered with excitement. "Who would have said it about her…?"
"And in that plan, it is said that during the negotiations the security around the hall will be intensified."
"Which means less guards in the quarry pit?" Reimu was beginning to put two and two together.
"Exactly." Remilia nodded. "As you can see right now, there are pair of mixed guards at each end of the pit – North, South, East and West." she explained as she pointed at the distant pairs of figures that held vigil over everything that was going on in and around the excavation site.
"Precisely an hour ago, the tengu have already sent fresh replacements for the quarry gurads, but not the yama-bito. Since there's less of them than the tengu guards, they switch their sentries every 2 hours, which will be…" she glanced at Sakuya who held her silver watch ready in her palm.
And just as she said, the four couples of youkai guards have been replaced. Remilia nodded in self-satisfaction.
"As it is now, nobody can enter or leave the quarry without their knowledge and permission. Nothing can pass undetected through the sharp sight of the White Wolves. Even with Sakuya's power, once we'd get over that shimenawa fence, her power would quickly drain, leaving us without a means to infiltrate the ruins. However," she raised her index finger, "Sakuya hasn't mentioned the most interesting part of her findings."
"Oh, and that would be…?" Marisa perked up.
"Well, as you probably all know, the summit will be held among 4 representatives of each of the involved parties: the tengu, the yama-bito, the Human Village and us – the archeological research expedition."
"So a "leader" of each side, huh?"
"Not quite." the maid corrected Marisa's assumption. "The yamabito chieftain doesn't live in this village, so the village elder of Kazemura is going to represent them. The same goes for the tengu. According to one message I found in the White Wolf commander's tent, the tengu military doesn't have the authority to negotiate, but at the same time, the affair doesn't require Lord Tenma's presence. That's why he's sending a diplomatic envoy to negotiate in his name. But the Human Village will indeed be represented by the current elder."
"So where's the interesting part?" Reimu asked.
"Why, the tengu emissary, of course." Remilia responded instead of the maid.
"What's so special about him?" the miko wondered.
"The way all of these canine tengu are going to act when he arrives."
"Are they going to dance around him in a circle?" Marisa's attempt to sound funny was met with poker faces of all 3 other girls.
"You almost guessed correctly." said Sakuya. "As I said, he's going to negotiate in Lord Tenma's name. As such, he's going to have the same authority as Lord Tenma himself for the duration of the meeting. Now, that by itself would probably not even be worth mentioning, if it wasn't for one particular custom the White Wolf tengu practice whenever their lord, general or someone of the ruling tengu elite shows up."
"They're all going to ceremoniously line themselves up to form a sort of triumphal alley with their swords raised." Remilia completed the information.
"Wait, all of them?" the shrine maiden wasn't quite inclined to believe that.
"Yes, that includes every single White Wolf tengu stationed in this village." Sakuya confirmed. "But this customary greeting rarely lasts longer than a minute."
"That's right." the maid's mistress nodded. "And in that short time we must sneak past the tired yama-bito guards, enter the quarry and get into the temple before the tengu return to their posts."
"Do my ears deceive me?" Marisa felt like now was the right time for a series of rhetorical questions. "Am I dreaming? You girls were planning to get inside the temple? Without even telling Gensokyo's number one thief about it?! I'm very disappointed by your selfishness…" She might have seemed upset, but her radiating grin wasn't planning to leave her face any time soon.
"So you're finally openly admitting that you're a thief?" Reimu started taking cheap shots at Marisa's shameless confession.
"Hey, if it's for the right cause, it's not really a crime, is it?"
"Try telling that to the temple guards." The shrine maiden scoffed at Marisa's attitude before deciding to point out a gaping flaw in Remilia's plan.
"And while it's nice that you've come up with a way to get inside undetected, it seems you totally forgot that we'll eventually need to get out of there. And I highly doubt that one minute is going to be enough for us to get in, explore the temple, stop the vengeful spirits and get out of there before the tengu return to their stations."
"Who cares about that?!" the little vampire again showed the more childish side of her character, but maybe it was due to her extreme confidence that she decided to throw all caution after the infiltration to the wind. "Once we uproot the spirit problem and solve this incident, it won't matter anymore. We will have done our work and whatever they decide to do with or in that temple afterwards doesn't interest me. They can turn it into a museum, or a fortress, or a theater for all I care… And if any of those fools will feel like I deserve a punishment for trespassing, they're welcome to try taking me on."
"That's… really cute and all," Marisa spoke up, "but how exactly are you going to fight the vengeful spirits or whoever is controlling them if you won't be able to use magic or divine powers?"
"That would interest me as well." Reimu seconded Marisa's concern. "Maybe we should simply wait for Eirin or Kaguya, or both of them to get here and have them go in first. It's not like anything can happen to them that would have any lasting effect on their health, even if there's something dangerous inside."
"Maybe not physical health, but… can't they still become possessed?" the ordinary magician wondered.
"Not sure… So far we've only ever seen the spirits possessing fairies." Reimu muttered and stood up from the rocky plate she was sitting on.
"Has anyone even called for them." asked Remilia. "Not that we have the time to wait for them."
Judging by the facial expressions of other girls, she quickly figured that the immortal Lunarian exiles most likely didn't even know about the current situation in Kazemura. Then a question crossed Marisa's mind. One that was already answered in that part of the conversation which she missed.
"B-but… hold on a second, girls… Why are we even planning a stealthy break-in? And before the negotiations? What about Patchy?"
As Remilia was about to open her mouth to go over the reason for such a bold plan, a familiar voice interrupted her and quite startled the rest of the band.
"What about me?" a certain violet-haired and not-too-tall youkai magician caught the group by surprise.
"Errr… umm…nothing, nothing!" the vampire unconvincingly denied that her conversation with the gathered girls had anything to do with Patchouli. "A-anyway… what brings you here?" she made a desperate attempt to change the subject by asking her a nonchalant question.
"I just wanted to get some fresh air and the last sunrays when I heard my name. What were you talking about?"
"Oh, we were just talkin' about… mnfmm~!" Remilia's palm gagged the blonde's mouth just in time.
"Yeah, about going to the tavern and having some sake." Remilia tried to make a save.
"Yes, and then Marisa asked if you'd be joining us too. Hehe… How foolish… Doesn't she know that you're not fond of alcohol?"
Patchouli's almost famous unamused expression was adorning her face even at that moment.
"But you don't drink sake either." the sorceress pointed out.
"B-but I do… once in a while." a few droplets of sweat appeared on Remilia's forehead.
"It's true… I did have some during the Tanabata festival too." Even though Remilia did sound fairly convincing now, it was almost impossible to hide her strange behavior, especially from her best friend who has known her for many decades.
"Well, suit yourself if you don't want to go." Remilia stood up, grabbed Reimu by the sleeve and started dragging her off to the tavern. "Let's go already…"
And for that brief moment when the vampire's hand was no longer preventing Marisa from talking, the witch began to question her destination.
"Eh? But I've just been in the Hearth a couple of mi… mnfmnm~!" only to be silenced again.
"Of course you were, Marisa. You were the one who invited us all and ordered us a round in advance."
And that was the last little lie that Patchouli heard before her friend had dragged the reluctant girls away into the mentioned establishment. Patchouli could only stand there and wonder what Remilia's charade was all about. She hummed thoughtfully and walked back into her tent to finish up her preparations for tomorrow's important meeting.
"Back so soon, Patchouli-sama?" her devil familiar lifted her gaze from a book she was tasked to copy.
"Welcome back." Akyuu also preferred her "armchair" work, which was apparent from the sheer amount of time she had spent in the tent, studying the glyphs.
As the sorceress rested herself on her chair, Koakuma suddenly asked her: "Was it as you said, Patchouli-sama?"
"Yes, it seems to be that way…" Patchouli showed a fleeting smile and nodded.
Akyuu felt a little left out as she listened to their conversation without any context.
"That is a little mean, isn't it?" the little devil gave Patchouli a pitying look.
"No. I don't really think of it that way."
"But what are you going to do now, Patchouli-sama?"
"The same thing I originally intended to do." the librarian replied as she put her reading glasses on. "I'll participate in tomorrow's negotiations, even if Remi strongly believes that I'll fail. Let's do our best for tomorrow, Koakuma."
"Yes, Patchouli-sama~!" the little devil cheerfully flopped both pairs of her wings, ready to stay up all night if it meant any help to her mistress. As it turned out in the end, Patchouli was not as dense as Remilia thought of her.