The Songstress of Avalon
A veritable throng of spectators had gathered in Knott's Bay for the Sailing of the Tengu. In almost all respects, it was the archetypical summer festival; food stalls lined the walkway running parallel to the bay and on the other side, a makeshift platform ensured a prime view of the bay in its entirety.
In less than an hour, the main event would begin.
As its name suggested, the Sailing of the Tengu was the festival's main attraction. Long boats carved in the shape of tengu, and manned by teams of twenty-two paddlers, would be set on the water and then race against each other in a syncretic display of folk religion and entertainment.
"Aah, look at that one!" Sora was pointing excitedly at one of the boats; although there were a variety of designs, this one was distinguishable from the others by the red ribbon hanging from its hull, an honour only given to the reigning champion.
The rest of us, however, were more interested in the meat bun stall.
Against my son's protests, which fortunately did not escalate to the level of a tantrum, we lined up. The fragrant scent of freshly steamed meat buns caressed our nostrils, including Sora's, and he soon calmed down, having switched the object of his affections. He was now content to just stare at the tengu boats from afar.
"Hey honey," Arisa used a term of affection which I was sure I had never been addressed by before.
"Hmm?" my reply a mire of both curiosity and surprise.
"Why is there a place called Knott's Bay in Japan?" she asked, almost perfunctorily; her voice lacked inquisitiveness, as though she already knew the answer.
"Well..." I hoped my sight hesitance didn't betray my complete indifference to the subject. "Maybe it's a Chinese reading?"
"Ah, you might be right. Serina was asking me about it earlier, and I didn't know so..." Arisa looked down towards Serina whose small hands were enclosed around her mother's.
At the sound of her name, my daughter looked up and declared obstinately: "Serina doesn't care about reading or about names."
She was still young enough to be refer to herself in the third person. Wasn't she just the cutest? I wanted to tell her that too, but we had just reached the front of the line, and the meat bun seller had a much quicker tongue than I did.
"This family is a sight for sore eyes! Well, what will it be, little miss?" the stall's proprietor addressed Serina who, in her shy way, replied by holding up four fingers.
"Make it five," Arisa cut in, raising her untethered hand toward her stomach. "I'm eating for two, you see," she said, smiling.
"Wait, what?!" my voice almost caught in my throat.
She lifted her hand even higher, curling her fingers until only the index jutted out; then, she planted it on the lips and spoke, enunciating each syllable as though she were purposely trying to heighten the tension in the already taut atmosphere. In the end, the words out of her mouth were about what I expected, but I still found myself breathing a sigh of relief.
With meat buns in hand, we strolled along the promenade and took in the sights. Sora's footsteps began to stagger, a clear indication that he was beginning to feel sleepy. Gently, I led him towards the platform where the sitting area was located. He lay horizontally on the seat, his head resting on my lap and his legs stretched out over the side of the seat.
Arisa sat on the opposite side, with Serina just beside her. She was playing with the girl's hair, touching it as though there were some kind of unreal quality about it. Serina, for her part, was unbothered, seemingly mesmerised by the boat races.
"It's almost as though she's real, isn't it?" Arisa said.
Her words only aggrandised the holes in my memory, those unbearable lacunas which I couldn't seem to fill no matter how hard I tried. I took a deep breath, and decided I had no choice but to concede that this world was hollow. Given its disquieting and artifical nature, to do so didn't make me unhappy, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't have fun playing house, if only for a little while.
I looked down at 'my son', still sleeping, and then asked 'my wife', "when did you realise?"
"We live in Japan, right?" she began to say, a tint of melancholy in her voice. "So why is our house on a street called La Via dei Notturni?"
"There are places in Japan with foreign names though," I countered, but without much enthusiasm. "For example, the Chinatown in Kobe is called Nankinmachi."
It was a weak retort, and Arisa knew it. She didn't even bother respond verbally, merely shaking her head somewhat dolefully. "Have you ever read That Awful Mess at La Via del Notturni?"
"The heck is that?" I questioned.
"It's an Italian novel," she explained, and then as though in addendum, "I was a literature student in university, I think. In any case, I've read that novel twice."
I felt a pang of jealousy, unsuitable for the occasion. I didn't even have the opportunity to go to university having been called to this other world via the Hero Ritual when I was still in high school. God knows how badly I wanted to attend; memories of my high school days zoomed through my head, something in my subconscious was tugging at me.
The time I travelled to Boston to tour the Harvey Hopkins University campus, my friends in the baseball club, whiling away rainy days with video games and mystery novels, those summer nights frolicking the abandoned shrine with Tsumugi...
And then, I suddenly remembered.
"Ah, Ouro Trigger!"
"What? Wait, what's wrong, Ayato?" Arisa asked.
My hands were in my head.
"Knott's Bay... is the final area in Ouro Trigger. You know that famous RPG game from the 90s?" I still couldn't raise my head.
"I-I've might've heard of it...?" was her non-committal answer.
I wouldn't be surprised if she had heard of it, even if she never played it herself. It was just that famous. For my part, I had played it to death. It was the crowning jewel of my retro video game phase, and even now I felt as though I could clear it with one hand behind my back. So, my embarrassment at not recognising the name 'Knott's Bay' earlier was understandably palpable.
"And these tengu boat races are just dragon boats. My grandfather used to take me to the Dragon Boat Festival in Aioi City, you know, when I was a kid..."
When I was a kid.
Sora's eyes fluttered but did not open, and I realised that the boy sleeping fithfully on my lap was myself. Twenty years younger, of course, but the resemblance was unearthly, diluted only by the lighter shade of his hair - no doubt, he had 'gotten' that from Arisa. The irreverent witch in the garden, at the very least, had some respect for Mendel, his successors and the laws of biological inheritance.
Mab's magic was truly fearsome.
"She's probably gotten into our heads," I theorised. "This entire world is constructed from our memories. The books you've read, and the games I've played. And our childhood memories as well," my eyes slowly drifted from Sora to Serina, and I wondered whether Arisa had looked at her daughter's face, and had the same realisation that I did - that she was looking into a mirror.
"She left a bit of herself in this word too," Arisa spoke cryptically; with a sad smile, she hovered a hand over her stomach.
"What do you mean by that?" I asked immediately.
"Remember earlier when I said I was eating for two?" she recalled, staring at me intensely. "At the time I genuinely believed that I was pregnant. It wasn't a joke."
"Basically, what you're saying is Mab is pregnant, right?"
As though the saying of the Fairy Queen's name were some kind of signal, Serina, still perched on Arisa's lap, started pointing towards the bay where four boats were clearly in the middling section of a fierce race. The reigning champion, wearing its red ribbion proudly, was pulling ahead and its immense speed made it look as though its bow were tilting.
Slowly, it began to get bigger.
It was no illusion, either. The boat had been tilting, and in our direction too. If it looked bigger, then that was only because it was getting much closer to us, close enough that we could make out the humanoid, but inhuman, shapes of the twenty-two shadows rowing it. In the center of the boat was a lonesome, feminine figure.
As the boat crept forward, I could see Mab dabbing her eyes, still elegant despite a vague puffiness, with a piece of cloth. When the boat was on the verge of making contact with the bay's edge, twenty two paddles jettisoned from the boat and pierced the water, causing it to slowly skim to a halt.
The Queen of Fairies and Dreams looked up at us from her waterbound throne.
"Did you have a nice dream?" she asked. "I've already got what I came for so..."