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A Five-letter Word

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Where Patchouli was born and first walked under cold moonlight, truth was a covenant. If you weren't worth your word, you were worth nothing. Fidelity was the greatest truth of all, or so those who wanted her loyalty claimed.

Where she first immersed herself in the pages of ancient tomes, turning vellum and birch bark alike, diving for knowledge, always more knowledge, truth was a sin, an excuse to avoid honest work which marked her for what she was in the wary eyes of humans.

Where she dwelled now, after choosing to join her friend in her peculiar endeavour, truth was a beautiful ideogram, symmetrical and whole, read "shin" or "makoto". She liked the taste of both on her tongue. Truth here was fetched from the same well visions came from.

One thing was yet to change, she thought as she added a correction next to an outdated paragraph in one of her grimoires. Wherever she had gone, whether her breath had been constricted by cold or heat or parchment mites, truth had always been an inconstant fiend.

There was a clatter of porcelain, and she looked up to see Koakuma struggling to keep the tea tray horizontal, staring at the quill in her hand with a scandalised air. The fairies were especially unreliable now that spring has arrived, preferring to frolic in the pollen-laden air over even a pretence of working, so her own only marginally more reliable assistant was saddled with the task of fetching both grimoires and refreshments when necessary.

"Put it down," she instructed, turning back to her work. The little devil couldn't always be trusted, but she knew better than to allow the tea to spill over even the least valuable of books.

Koakuma did so, gingerly, and exhaled a small sigh of relief that in the silence echoed like the footsteps of a herd of elephants. "I'm sorry, Lady Patchouli. It's just..."

She trailed off as Patchouli raised an eyebrow at her, then continued, having clearly interpreted the gesture as a questioning rather than dismissing one. "I thought no-one was allowed to make any markings in the books."

Koakuma herself certainly wasn't, not after the Purple Ink Incident, and it was true that Patchouli had made it a general policy that no-one was to touch, mark, and in any even miniscule way to deface the sacred repositories of knowledge in her charge without her permission. A policy Marisa Kirisame cheekily ignored as she not only thumped through all the books but stole many away, with the vague promise of eventual return, but which her other, few visitors were generally able to respect.

She finished making her note, then dried the tip of the quill and balanced it on its holder before addressing Koakuma. "You're right."

"Then..." Koakuma's brow furrowed. Perhaps she had finally understood that the rules of the mistress of the library differed from those of visitors and assistants.

Whatever the case, the poor devil looked so frazzled that eventually Patchouli relented and pushed the tome closer to her. "Take a look."

Koakuma peered closer to stare at a pristine chart depicting leylines in southern Asia, the ink as black and supple as it had been the day it had left the ink fount of the ancient magician who had once drawn it. Not a speck of red showed.

Before Koakuma could voice her confusion, Patchouli glided her hand over the page. Countless notes in as many languages emerged from the grain, some written in red, others in emerald green, one in thick calligraphy as black as a starless night appeared on the page. They covered the entire parchment to where the original text was in parts barely legible.

The wings on Koakuma's head drooped. "Of course."

Patchouli smiled at what she knew to be the handiwork of seven centuries of magicians and wiped the page clean but for her most recent notes. "You should really expect magic everywhere after all this time working here."

Koakuma nodded glumly, then hesitated. "But... why do you write things in it anyway? Isn't it already done?"

Before Patchouli could reply, she was overtaken by an infernal coughing fit. Koakuma looked on with a frown as her body tried to expel her lungs.

Finally, it subsided. She helped herself to some tea, barely tasting it as the warm liquid cleared the worst of the clog in her throat.

Koakuma was still there, too accustomed to her attacks to look alarmed. That was good. She preferred that they created no fuss, though she would have much preferred if they didn't exist at all.

What had they been discussing? Oh, yes. It wasn't really any of Koakuma's business, or rather it was something she could have pieced together if she had given it a moment's thought. But though she didn't trust her assistant any further than she could cast Satellite Himawari at her, she saw no reason not to discuss it. It had to be the spring in her.

She cleared her throat. "What is it that we keep in this library?"

"Books?" Koakuma's tone was of one expecting a trap. Had the maids been playing pranks on her again?

"And what's in those books?"

"Oh. Knowledge."

At least she hadn't said words. "How much of the world's knowledge do you think we have in this library?"

Koakuma shrugged. "Feels like all of it whenever I have to dust the books."

"As it happens, nobody knows. Knowledge is never-ending." Patchouli closed the grimoire and examined its cover fondly, tracing the silvery emblem embossed on it with her fingertips. "You could read every single book here from cover to cover and become one of the most knowledgeable devils of all, and yet you would know only a fraction of what the world has to offer. Even if you could read every book in the world, you'd find that after you were done, there'd be ten thousand more, and you still wouldn't know everything there is to know about the universe. You wouldn't even know all there is to know about magic."

Koakuma's wings had risen at their zenith, as they usually only did when she was spooked. "Lady Patchouli, does that mean you don't know everything there is to know about magic, either?"

"There would be no reason for me to read if I did." And what a wretched existence that would be. Back in the old world, she had found the legend of the man who had sold his soul for knowledge pitiable not because he had wound up in Hell, but because he had earned everything without working for it, and had never seen its true value. Furthermore, a wiser man would have known he was being cheated: how could anyone know everything, when truth was fickle and the lines were blurred and everything he saw was filtered through his human mind which could never grasp reality as it really stood?

"You know," she said, only lately realising she had spoken out loud, "it's a miracle the knowledge didn't drive him insane at once."

"Okay..." Koakuma's wings fluttered uncertainly before settling on drooping. "I'm sorry to have bothered you while you work, Lady Patchouli. I'll leave you in peace and go dust... uh, the lawn."

Patchouli looked on as the dazed little devil scurried off, then reached for the tea. She breathed in the honey and ginger which always eased her breathing before taking a long sip. The drink had grown tepid.

No matter. She set the cup aside and returned to the grimoire, plunging herself into the next page with relish.

Truth was fickle, yes, but it was also never-ending. And that, she thought, was the best truth of all.