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Hiromasa passed a restless night in the monastery, all too aware of Seimei curled asleep on the far side of the room. After the incident in the meadow, they’d spoken only of banalities, a stiff formality creeping into their usual easiness. Hiromasa lay on his bedroll and searched his mind for the appropriate words to reassure Seimei that it didn’t matter, that he didn’t care if Seimei’s grandfather and mother were foxes; but every time he thought he’d found the best way to phrase his speech, Hiromasa remembered that Seimei had chosen to conceal his ancestry, and perhaps he didn’t want reassurance because then he’d just be reminded of the difference between them, and...

Hiromasa’s head hurt. He gave up trying to think and lay still, sweating in the humid darkness, listening to the wind.

He must have fallen asleep eventually, for when he opened his eyes again, it was morning and someone was hammering on the door. Hiromasa struggled to rise. Tiredness crusted his vision and he shambled to the door, grumbling. With a shock like a dousing of cold water, he noticed Seimei had gone. Hiromasa shook his head. He had to speak to Seimei soon, the sooner the better, and clear up whatever this wariness was between them.

He opened the door, and a novice—one of the youths he’d seen the other night when the kin first played—almost fell onto him in haste. “My lord, forgive me for disturbing you, but there’s a message from the town—the headman has returned!”

Hiromasa rubbed a hand across his chin. “That’s good. Did he say where he’d been all this time?”

“He was attacked.” The novice shuddered. “He saw the spice merchant’s wife wandering the streets alone and tried to escort her back to her home, but she gave no sign of recognising him and ignored all his entreaties. The headman says it’s as if she were in a trance!”

“That would agree with what the missing sailor’s comrades said, too. But wait one moment...” Hiromasa stepped back into the room and pulled on three light robes in complementary tones of blue. Though it couldn’t be later than the end of the hour of the Rabbit, the day already felt uncomfortably hot—too hot for a cloak, but Hiromasa refused to go out dressed inappropriately. He smoothed his sleep-draggled hair beneath his cap and joined the novice on the veranda. “Please continue.”

The novice bowed. “Lord, the headman said he followed the spice merchant’s wife, still trying to urge her to go home, when he saw the young sailor. He also seemed to be in a trance. The lady and the sailor didn’t greet each other—in fact, they seemed completely unaware of anything around them!”

“Demonic possession?” Hiromasa wondered aloud. He made a mental note to ask Seimei about this later. “How did Pearl and the sailor get past the town gates?”

“They didn’t go that way. The headman tracked them into the poorest part of town and they simply climbed over a tumbledown wall before continuing up the hill.” The novice glanced around and lowered his voice. “They went north, into the trees. The headman followed, calling for them to come back. Then it happened.”

Hiromasa drew closer. “What?”

The novice made a swooping motion, the sleeves of his robe flapping. “A gigantic shape flew down and struck him! A winged monster, a demon—a ferocious beast with a hooked beak! The air was full of the beating of its wings and its horrible shrieks!”

“How terrifying,” Hiromasa murmured, moving away from the novice’s excited re-enactment of the demonic attack.

“Yes!” cried the novice, clutching his sleeves about him and twisting now as if in the grip of a monster. “The headman fought the demon, but it overcame him with its awful strength. He was flung against a tree and hit his head, and slumped to the ground—he has a lump the size of a duck’s egg on the back of his head, and his hair is matted with blood. He lost his senses and lay helpless in the woods for almost a whole day!”

“Goodness. He’s lucky to have survived.” Hiromasa edged away, thinking that the young novice would be better suited to a creative profession rather than the monastic life. “I should go to Kuwana and make myself known to the headman. Perhaps he can share more information on what manner of demon attacked him.”

“But that’s not all!” The novice kept pace, face alight with eagerness. “When the headman woke up, his first thought was for the safety of the spice merchant’s wife and the sailor, so he pushed on through the woods and found a trail of blood and clothing.”

Hiromasa halted. “And?”

The novice shivered, suddenly losing his high spirits. His expression sobered and even his voice sounded different when he said, “My lord, the headman found them. They’re dead, killed the same way as every other victim.”

Even though Hiromasa had known they were dead, it still gave him a shock to hear it. He bowed his head, worries and uncertainties jostling for attention. What should he do now? What would Seimei do? Hiromasa squeezed his eyes shut. To help the people of Kuwana and to solve this case, he needed to think clearly and not be distracted by emotion. He recalled Seimei’s words to him yesterday: Study the demon’s habits... uncover its motivation... attempt to understand it.

Hiromasa straightened. “I need to see it for myself.” He looked at the novice. “Take me to the site. I need to examine the bodies.”

* * *


The midday heat was unbearable. Hiromasa returned to the shrine with a savage headache and gurgles of nausea threatening at the back of his throat. The novice who’d accompanied him to the scene of the murders had been sick three times already, but Hiromasa was too aware of his rank to risk vomiting in public. He’d wanted to, though—wanted to empty his stomach and clear his mind of the horrible sight of the mangled corpses of the handsome sailor and the spice merchant’s pretty young wife.

Several of the townsfolk had stood waiting for him in a little clearing ringed with pine trees. The headman swayed on his feet, eyes wide with shock and the blood dried in runnels down his face. He told the same story to anyone who asked; his voice clipped and low as if repressing screams of horror. The spice merchant and his first wife knelt beside Pearl’s body, the merchant clinging tight to his first wife as she wailed out her grief. Three heavyset men in rough, simple clothes huddled at a short distance from the dead sailor—the man’s drinking companions, Hiromasa guessed.

“Find the murderer for us, my lord,” the spice merchant had said. “Find him and deliver him to us for justice!”

The headman had turned his blank face in their direction. “Not a man. A demon. It’s a demon. A demon!”

The novice had been sick for the first time then.

Conscious of his audience, Hiromasa had gone through the motions of examining the two corpses. After a full day exposed to the heat and the attentions of woodland creatures, the bodies had swollen and emitted a rich, slimy odour that seemed to cling to Hiromasa’s hands and clothing. Their eyes dribbled with shining rivers of insects, and their torn flesh was a stark, shocking red.

Hiromasa focused his gaze on little details as he moved between the bodies. The sailor’s left boot had come unstitched on one side near the heel. Pearl’s robe was patterned with stylised clouds and edged with blue ribbon. A small bone comb lay in the grass. Hiromasa stared at it for a long time before concluding that it belonged to the sailor. The study of these small objects gave him time to compose himself and distracted him from the full horror of what he was seeing.

The novice threw up twice more before Hiromasa finished his investigations. The headman broke down in tears and was taken away by the spice merchant and his wife. Only the three sailors remained, casting nervous glances around at the woodland.

“Whether it’s a man or a demon, I hope you find the bastard who did this, my lord,” one of them said.

“I will,” Hiromasa promised; but now as he approached the monastery gates, he wondered if he had the stomach for it. The sun crowded in on him, the light glaring. Not a single cloud hung in the sky. It was too hot, thoughts boiling in his head just as his skin prickled with sweaty heat. Skull thick with pain, Hiromasa handed his mount to the silent novice and blundered in search of Seimei.

He stripped off his cloak as he walked, too hot to care about his lapse of propriety. The sleeves of his top-robe were next. Hiromasa shrugged out of them, letting the top half hang down. It was all very unorthodox, but he still wore two under layers to give the illusion of decency. The sensation of the breeze against his damp skin as he walked brought such relief that he considered making several circuits of the courtyard.

Today, no kin music could be heard from the storeroom. Hiromasa heard conversation instead—a one-sided conversation, by the sound of it, but still a conversation. Pushing open the door with more force than he intended, Hiromasa entered the storeroom to find Seimei lounging on the floor looking cool and relaxed. The kin sat opposite, placed on top of the box of amulets.

Seimei broke off his conversation and turned to Hiromasa, raising one eyebrow. “Ah, Hiromasa. You look a trifle warm.”

Hiromasa blew a strand of wet hair from his eyes. “It’s too hot out there. Horribly hot. Like a furnace. Who are you talking to?”

“The kin,” Seimei said, as if it were obvious.

“Not a ghost?”

Seimei smiled and sketched a spell through the air. “The ghost that haunts this instrument speaks only through her music. To speak to the kin is to speak to her.”

“A woman?” The temperature dropped to a comfortable level. Hiromasa gave an appreciative sigh and sank down beside Seimei. “That’s better, thank you.” He rearranged his silks, looking towards the kin. “A woman haunts it?”

“Indeed. A tragic story.” Seimei flicked him a teasing look. “I know how much you love sad stories about women...”

“I do not! I like romances and stories with happy endings—”

“And romantic stories with sad episodes that nevertheless end happily,” Seimei continued, “but this lady’s story is very sad.”

Hiromasa gave the kin a speculative, hopeful glance. “Does it end happily?”

“I don’t know.” Seimei dropped his gaze, then looked up again and smiled. “But tell me your news. I heard the headman had returned and the bodies had been found. Did you investigate?”

Fresh nausea welled. Hiromasa put a hand over his mouth and shuddered, trying to force back the upheaval in his stomach. For a moment he’d felt so safe here, so wrapped up in the easy intimacy he shared with Seimei, but now the memories of what he’d seen came crashing back, obliterating his sense of calm. He took his hand away and tried to speak. “It was—it was...”

“Oh, Hiromasa.” Seimei’s voice softened. “Was it so very horrible?”

Tears guttered in his vision. Hiromasa tightened his hands into fists. “It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen. Truly, Seimei, I never thought—never imagined...” He bit off the words, fighting down revulsion and fear. “The headman confirmed it was a demon. A monster with wings and a hooked beak. What it did to them—I will never forget—”

Seimei moved closer, placing a comforting hand on Hiromasa’s shoulder. “Tell me,” he murmured. “Unburden yourself.”

Hiromasa lowered his head and shook with dry sobs. “They—Pearl and the sailor—they’d been mauled by the demon. Clawed at. There was blood everywhere, and bits of flesh, and—and there were holes in their bodies. But the worst thing, the absolute worst thing...” He broke off to rub at his eyes with the back of his fist. Meeting Seimei’s steady gaze, Hiromasa said brokenly, “Seimei, the demon drove stakes through them while they were still alive. I could tell by their injuries. They were impaled, forced down onto sharpened spikes. It was—I can’t...”

He stopped, overcome. Silence rang around them. Hiromasa concentrated on breathing, willing the nausea to subside.

Seimei looked at the kin. “Ah.”

Hiromasa lifted his head. “Is that all you can say? Seimei! Those poor people were murdered in the most appalling way!”

“Butchered,” Seimei said.

Hiromasa stared at him, aghast. “How can you be so calm? How can you say ‘butchered’ like that, as if Pearl and the sailor were animals?”

“To their killer, that’s exactly what they were.”

Shock brought Hiromasa to his feet. He threw off Seimei’s touch and backed away, anger and disappointment twisting his gut. “I won’t listen to this. Seimei, sometimes I swear you’re no more than an animal yourself!”

A moment of total silence followed this statement. Seimei turned his head, jaw tense, his eyes over-bright.

Hiromasa wanted to kick himself. “I didn’t mean...”

“Of course you didn’t.” A pause, and then Seimei looked up, his features perfectly blank. “Go, Hiromasa. Continue your investigation. The rains will begin during the hour of the Sheep.”

* * *


Dispirited and ashamed of the way he’d let his mouth run on without him, Hiromasa slunk out of the storeroom. He scuffed slowly across the gravelled courtyard, hoping Seimei would follow him and annoyed when he heard the delicate sounds of the kin. Huffing, Hiromasa retired to their room and changed his robes. He washed his hands several times in a basin of water warm from the day, dried off on a scrap of linen, then wandered around feeling irritated and restless.

Continue the investigation, Seimei had said. Hiromasa had no idea what to do next. Despite a thorough examination of the bodies, he was no closer to identifying the demon. Gloom descended upon him. Hiromasa fiddled with the cuffs of his sleeves and tried to order his thoughts. When he’d told Seimei about the murders, he’d allowed emotion to rule him. Now he took out the memory again and studied the evidence dispassionately. Seimei had said the demon saw Pearl and the sailor as nothing more than animals. What kind of creature could strip away a person’s humanity like that?

A demon, obviously.

Hiromasa heaved a sigh. This method of deduction wasn’t working. He would solve nothing at this rate.

The roof creaked. He looked up, sensing a shift in the air. A wind blew, little more than a draught, but it was strong enough to bang the shutters back against the window. Hiromasa held out a hand and felt a cold breeze lick at his fingertips. He wondered if this was the harbinger of the rains.

A sense of anticipation grew within him. It seemed an age since the last time he’d seen the rain. Surely everything would be better when the rains came. No more awful heat, no more short tempers and misspoken words, no more uncomfortable nights and exhausting days. The rains would come, and the world would be put to rights—and he wanted to witness the first few drops fall.

He settled his lacquered tail cap on his head and strode out of the monastery. Up the hill he went, following the line of the woods as he hurried, robes flapping in the rising wind, until he came to the meadow. When he crested the ridge, he saw the heavens smudged with a storm-front; clouds tumbling, black and heavy, into a wall of darkness that moved towards him with surprising speed.

The wind buffeted him, cold fingers snatching at his silks and fluttering the gauze tails of his cap. The air shone with the promise of rain. He could even smell it, a wet earth scent strong enough to taste. Hiromasa ran out into the centre of the meadow amongst the rippling grass and tipped back his head.

The rain began. The sound of it to start, pitter-pattering, then harder, the drops striking the parched ground like drumbeats, sending up puffs of dust. For a while the earth was too dry to accept the rain, then it soaked in, becoming a dark stain spreading over the ground. Hiromasa laughed in sheer pleasure. For the first time since Yatsuhashi, he felt clean, his confidence renewed.

He danced about, catching raindrops, until the downpour became torrential. A cold wind whipped at him, shaping his thin summer silks to his body, and Hiromasa realised he was soaked to the skin. Thunder boomed, rolling in echoes across the sky. He blinked up through the rain streaming down his face in time to see a jagged crack of lightning.

Alarmed, Hiromasa uttered a yelp and scurried for the safety of the woods. Wet branches clawed at him, knocking off his cap and catching in his hair and snatching at his robes. The ground ran with water, the surface turned slippery with mud. The wind hissed through the trees and the grey sky seemed to press down upon him. Hiromasa blundered in what he hoped was the direction of the monastery and emerged through a snarl of brambles into a small clearing canopied by pine trees.

He hadn’t been in this part of the woods before. Anxious, he looked around. Movement on one of the lower branches caught his eye. He started forward, only to stop when he recognised the bird watching him. It was the same bird he’d seen on his ride to Kuwana, the same bird he’d seen in the meadow yesterday. A shrike—the bird that turned into a weed.

Curious, he approached the shrike. It continued to look at him, now perched motionless on its branch. As he drew closer, Hiromasa noticed an insect trapped beneath the bird’s claws. It was a wasp, still alive, its body writhing. A heartbeat later, the shrike dipped its head and retrieved the wasp, holding it delicately in its sharp, hooked bill. The shrike flitted from the branch and landed on the brambles. Dancing sidelong, it stabbed the wriggling, kicking wasp down onto a thorn then flew back to its perch.

Hiromasa stared, horrified by the bird’s cruelty. There were other insects impaled on the brambles, he realised—crickets, worms, even a small lizard. Some were dead; some were missing parts of their tiny bodies. Others still lived out their death throes. It was like—it was too much like...

The shrike shrilled, disrupting his thoughts. Hiromasa backed away from the bird. When he reached the edge of the clearing, he turned and ran.

* * *


Hiromasa was wet and miserable by the time he arrived back at the monastery. The kick of fear he’d felt in the woods had faded, leaving him irritable and embarrassed. As if a little bird could harm a grown man! His terror had been nothing more than confusion at being lost in the rainstorm, he told himself, but when the gatekeeper reminded him it was almost time for the evening meal, Hiromasa remembered the insects and lizard impaled on the thorns and decided he wasn’t hungry.

Rain still fell, gentler now. Mist cloaked the red-tiled roofs of the monastery. The gravel in the courtyard was waterlogged, puddles running the length of the galleries. A group of young novices splashed through the water, only to be reprimanded by a passing monk.

Hiromasa squelched along the veranda, his robes dragging heavily behind him, the silk cold against his skin. He pushed open the door to his room and stood blinking, one foot over the threshold. A brazier had been set up, its embers glowing with mild heat, a clothes rack arranged around it.

The thoughtful gesture would not have come from the monks. Hiromasa loosened his cloak and hung it on the rack. He did it slowly, aware of Seimei stretched out on a bedroll at the back of the room.

Seimei leaned on one arm, dressed only in two robes, dark blue figured silk over a white shift. He looked pale and thoughtful, a fan touched to his lips and his gaze turned inward, unfocused. A moment later he stirred, glancing up. He raked Hiromasa with a single look. “You’re wet.”

“It’s raining.” Annoyance clouded Hiromasa’s tone. “You said it would rain this afternoon, and it did. It’s raining, so I got wet.”

Discarding his fan, Seimei sat up. “You’re angry.”

“Frustrated.” Hiromasa tore off his top-robe, wrinkling his nose at the way it clung and slopped. He threw it into a corner, thought better of it, and draped the silk over the clothes rack. Being sensible did nothing to alleviate his temper, and he tugged at the next set of layers. “Frustrated with the murders, with the people of Kuwana, with the weather, with this monastery, with...”

“With me?”

Hiromasa swung around. “Seimei...” He stopped, lifting his hands in a helpless gesture. He had nothing to say. The last thing he wanted was to fight with Seimei, and right now he mistrusted any words that might come out of his mouth. Whatever he said would be taken the wrong way, and he couldn’t bear it. Better to be silent. Hiromasa shook his head, letting out his breath on a sigh.

Seimei lifted his chin. His eyes shone in the half light, a glitter of veiled emotion. When he spoke, his voice was husky, hesitant. “I have not been an ideal companion since Yatsuhashi.”

Hiromasa shrugged as he unfastened his topknot. He twisted his hair over one shoulder and patted at the wet ends. “It’s not your fault. The shadow fox hurt you.”

“Yes.” The word drew out, sibilant, uncertain. Seimei looked blank.

Silence quivered between them. Hiromasa wondered if he’d missed something. He let go of his hair, flicking a curious glance at his friend. Seimei watched him, gaze black and intense and full of unspoken desire.

Hiromasa turned away, tongue-tied. His hands shook as he continued to peel off the wet garments. Unwilling to be seen naked even by Seimei, he snatched up a dry robe and wrapped it around him before he stripped off his wet hakama.

“Hiromasa.” Now Seimei’s voice was soft, commanding, almost a purr.

Wild hope fluttering inside him, Hiromasa turned around.

Seimei reached out. “Come here.”

Heart pounding, Hiromasa went and knelt on the floor beside him. He took a deep breath, inhaling the scent from Seimei’s silks—frankincense, musk, honey. His head spun. He touched Seimei, stroked his sleeve, let their fingers entwine. Hiromasa looked down at their joined hands, aware of the difference between them, not just physical but in age and wisdom and experience and emotion. He had ten thousand things to say, but couldn’t articulate any beyond a single word: “Seimei...”

“Hush.”

Hiromasa slid a caress down Seimei’s face, rested his fingertips over the pulse in Seimei’s neck. He dropped his hand to the collar of the robes, the fabric soft-sheened beneath his touch. Hiromasa gazed at Seimei’s pale throat and the overlap of warm silk and felt crushed with need.

Seimei took down his hair, shook it out slightly, and smiled. “Forgive me?”

Hiromasa made an incoherent sound and pulled Seimei into his arms.

* * *


The rain continued to fall, a gentle lulling sound against the roof. An agreeable scent of drying clothes and fresh sweat tickled Hiromasa’s nose. He made a happy noise and nestled closer to Seimei, still wanting to touch and caress. He played with a tendril of Seimei’s hair, rediscovering its smell, its softness. Focusing on such a simple pleasure made it easier for him to give words to his thoughts.

“You must know I don’t care how old you are or what rank you hold or how many spells you can recite. I don’t care about your terrible court manners or your refusal to write poetry. I don’t care how many demons you’ve exorcised or how many times you trick me with your shikigami. Most of all, I don’t care what you are,” Hiromasa said quietly. “You are you, Seimei—that’s all that matters.”

Seimei looked sweetly content for the first time since Yatsuhashi. He smiled. “You are far too good for me.”

“On the contrary, it’s you who are too good for me.”

“We could debate the issue for the rest of the night and never agree.”

Hiromasa halted that line of conversation by turning Seimei’s right arm towards him and examining the scars of the shadow fox’s poison. The fine, spidery white lines beneath the skin had almost faded. Hiromasa bent his head and traced the scars with his tongue. Seimei squirmed and murmured, his breath quickening.

Hiromasa placed a kiss on the soft skin in the crook of Seimei’s elbow. “Why didn’t you tell me before that you truly were half fox?”

Seimei drew back slightly. “And spoil the surprise? Really, Hiromasa.” He raised his eyebrows, his tone arch and mocking.

“Seimei.” Hiromasa gave him a quelling look. “Don’t try to be defensive. Not with me.”

“It seems I have no defences with you.” Seimei sighed and stretched, lifting his arms briefly above his head. Settling back onto the bedroll, he touched gentle fingertips to Hiromasa’s cheek. “If I’d told you, would you have believed me?”

“Absolutely. I believe everything you tell me.”

“That is not always wise.”

Hiromasa shrugged. “If you omit or avoid the truth, you do it for your own purposes. I trust you.”

Seimei stared, emotion drowning his eyes for a brief, joyous moment. “Oh, Hiromasa.”

“Why should it change anything?” Hiromasa curled one leg over Seimei’s. “The rumours about your mother have been common currency at court for ages.”

“Rumour is not the same as truth. Rumour can be controlled, ignored. Truth cannot.” Seimei closed his eyes. “I didn’t want you to think I was a demon. I didn’t want you to think less of me.”

Hiromasa gave a soft snort. “First of all, you’re only half a demon—”

Seimei opened his eyes, gaze narrow. “Hiromasa...”

“Secondly,” Hiromasa continued, “I’ve seen demons. I’ve fought against them by your side. I’ve been through Ame no Miyashiro into the unseen world of the gods. I’ve died and been brought back to life. To some people, all that would make me a demon, too—or at least a demon sympathiser. I know demons, and you’re not one of them. Not even when you’re really angry.”

A soft huff of laughter shook Seimei. “But still...”

“But nothing! Seimei, you are not—you could never be—a demon.” A thought struck him then, and Hiromasa turned onto his side, frowning. “It’s happened before, hasn’t it? Someone rejected you because you’re half fox.”

Seimei didn’t reply, but his stillness was all the answer Hiromasa needed.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Hiromasa said. “You are you, and I love you.”

This time Seimei’s pale skin warmed with colour. He lowered his gaze and said softly, “My parentage complicates things in other ways, too.”

Hiromasa considered what he knew of foxes. “With Lady Aone... when she told us about her life, her immortality—you said—”

“‘What a sad fate’,” Seimei whispered.

“You weren’t talking about Lady Aone’s fate, were you?” Hiromasa sat up and looked at him. “You were thinking of your own.”

The glimmer of a twisted smile curved Seimei’s lips. “Aone’s fate and mine are not so different, though I am not immortal. The curse of a very long life is that I must lose things I want to keep... although doubtless if I am patient and deserving enough, those things will be returned to me in due course.”

Hiromasa lay down again and pillowed his cheek on his hand. “Will I be reborn for you?”

“Who knows? If I am fortunate.” Seimei’s smile grew, became teasing. “If you are unfortunate...”

“Seimei. Don’t joke.” Hiromasa yawned, feeling sleep pull at his senses. “My life would be nothing without you.”

A long silence greeted this remark. Seimei’s eyes glittered, then he leaned forward and kissed Hiromasa.

It was not the response Hiromasa wanted but it would suffice for now, for he knew it was heartfelt.

* * *


Morning came, bringing with it the dazzle of bright sunlight and the smell of verdancy. Hiromasa woke happy and hungry, and spent several moments nuzzling Seimei from his dreams before jumping to his feet, dressing, and going in search of breakfast. He returned with a large bowl of rice flavoured with specks of garlic and shredded pickled radish, and set it down on the floor beside the bedroll.

“I didn’t eat very much yesterday,” he excused himself, shovelling rice as fast as he could fill his mouth. “Wasn’t very hungry, then I was too busy.” He blushed and dropped his gaze to the food when Seimei chuckled.

“Too busy,” Seimei said, his tone teasing. “I apologise for causing you such trouble, Hiromasa.”

“You’re not trouble.” Hiromasa licked his fingers. “Please take some of this before I eat it all.”

Seimei sat up and helped himself to the rice. Hiromasa watched him, pleased to see his friend so content. There was a lightness about Seimei now, as if his spirits had been lifted and his worries erased. Hiromasa recognised the part he’d played in restoring Seimei’s equilibrium, and felt quietly glad.

“What do you intend to do today?” Seimei asked when he’d finished eating.

Hiromasa ran through a dozen pleasurable answers before settling on an honest reply. “I will continue the investigation. The townsfolk are awaiting my conclusions, although I’m afraid to say I haven’t made much progress.”

“Don’t say that.” Seimei gathered the length of his hair in his hands, twisted it into a lazy topknot, and fastened it in place with a strip of mulberry paper. “You know more than you realise.”

Hiromasa sighed and picked at the leftover rice. “I’m not as clever as you, Seimei.”

“I’m sure if you thought about it, if we discussed it, you’d find you were in a much stronger position than you believe.”

“Maybe.” Hiromasa’s attention wandered as he watched Seimei dress. Recollecting himself, he glanced down into the rice bowl and scraped up what remained of the food. “I know how the victims are murdered, but I don’t know who’s doing it. None of the townsfolk know, either. When I questioned them, they mentioned minor feuds over debts and marriage contracts and suchlike, but nothing that would explain a series of murders spanning eighty years. Who’s responsible for this? Who is he?”

Seimei put on his hunting costume, fastened the braided collar, and smoothed out his sleeves. “There is one suspect.”

“A demon.” Hiromasa pushed the bowl aside. “Only a demon would have the strength and cunning to do such a terrible thing.”

“Oh, it’s a demon. That is not the point.”

“It isn’t?”

“Have I taught you nothing, Hiromasa?” Seimei raised his eyebrows.

Hiromasa blushed again.

Seimei laughed. “It is not the what that concerns us, but the why. Very few demons are motivated by pure evil. A demon who butchers humans does so for a specific reason.”

“Motivation,” Hiromasa said with a sigh. He thought for a moment. “Perhaps he does it for a spell.”

“Good.” Seimei went over to the window and opened the shutters all the way. “What form would this spell take? What purpose would it have?”

Hiromasa gazed out of the window at the puddles in the courtyard. Realisation struck. “To summon the rain!”

Seimei gave a pleased nod. “Very good.”

“A sacrifice.” Hiromasa shuddered. “That’s horrible.”

“The most ancient and powerful spells require a blood sacrifice.” Leaning on the windowsill, Seimei looked out at the monastery. “Spells involving the weather are the most vicious of all... especially the most primitive, basic spells.”

Hiromasa stood and joined Seimei at the window. “But I don’t understand. The rains were due to come anyway. The rains come every year, and yet the murderer doesn’t strike every year. Why kill people at such strange intervals?”

Seimei said nothing; just looked at him expectantly.

“Could it be because—because...” Hiromasa struggled, groping for a reason that made sense. His head hurt. It was too early in the morning for him to wrestle with a conundrum like this, but he didn’t want to give up; at least, not while Seimei stood looking at him with such a clear expression of certainty and belief.

“The intervals aren’t random.” Hiromasa remembered Seimei saying that. He rubbed a hand across his head. “The intervals are... set?”

Seimei breathed out. “Yes.”

“The intervals have nothing to do with the coming of the rains. Or... or they do, but the rains aren’t what motivate the murderer.” Thoughts tangled and clashed. Hiromasa whined. “Seimei, I don’t know!”

“Come with me.” Seimei brushed past him, catching at his hand and leading him to the door.

“You know, don’t you?” Hiromasa kept hold of Seimei’s hand as they started across the courtyard. “You know who did it and why.”

Again Seimei said nothing.

Hiromasa muttered. He looked around the monastery, hoping none of the novices were out to witness the sight of Seimei leading him along like an ox hauling a cart. His gaze flicked over the roof-tiles, glistening wet in the morning sun, and fixed on a pair of doves circling the main shrine. Their flight reminded him of another bird, more sinister than the doves. An idea came to him. “Seimei, that bird we saw in the meadow—”

“The shrike.”

“It has a hooked beak. And,” Hiromasa continued, his confidence growing the more he considered his idea, “I saw it again yesterday just after the rains came, and witnessed a strange thing. It had caught a wasp and stabbed it, still alive, onto the spike of a bramble. It made me think of the demon, of what happened to Pearl and the sailor.”

They reached the storeroom. Seimei paused at the door and turned to face him. “The shrike has another name.”

“What?”

Seimei gave him a long look. “It’s called the butcher bird.”

Hiromasa drew in his breath. “Then the shrike is the demon?” he asked, following Seimei into the semi-darkness of the storeroom.

“I believe so.”

“It explains the demon’s unusual method of killing.” Pieces of the puzzle were slowly coming together. Hiromasa sidestepped the box of amulets and avoided the pile of tattered scrolls. “So we have its identity, but not its motive.”

Seimei chuckled, the sound deep and rich. “Oh, but we do.”

Hiromasa huffed and leaned against a supporting pillar. “It’s nothing to do with the usual arguments of the townsfolk and we’ve already established it needs to be about more than summoning the rain, so what else could it be?”

With a graceful movement, Seimei knelt and picked up the kin. Cradling it in his arms, he gave it a soft, almost tender look. “This is the motive.”

Mouth falling open, Hiromasa stared. “The kin...? The ghost!”

Laying the instrument across his lap, Seimei stroked across the strings, bringing forth the faintest ripple of music. “Listen,” he said, and played a tune—the melody they’d heard the first night. He played it through twice, once without any kind of ornamentation, the second time with emphasis on certain notes, plucking hard at the strings with sharp fingernails and making the sound resonate.

Hiromasa frowned, knowing he was on the edge of understanding but not quite grasping it yet. “I don’t...”

“Listen.” Seimei looked up at him, gaze dark, and began the tune a third time.

The music rang around the room, humming through Hiromasa’s body. He closed his eyes and swayed with it, trying to get inside the melody, and imagined playing the piece on his flute. He pictured it, the fingering, the sequence of the notes—

“Ah!” His eyes flew open and he started forward. “Again, Seimei—play it again from the start!”

Seimei began the tune again, and Hiromasa counted out the intervals between each note. The pattern he wanted came almost halfway through the melody. “One, three, six, four, seventeen...” Hiromasa clapped his hands. “The time between the murders is set according to the intervals between notes in the kin’s song.”

The music cut off; Seimei rested his hands over the strings. “And so?”

“And so I think it’s about time you told me the story of the ghost who haunts this instrument.” Hiromasa crouched down beside Seimei and the kin. “The ghost and the shrike demon knew one another, didn’t they?”

“They did indeed.” Seimei drew out a note, letting it hang in the air, a wavering, mournful sound. “The lady whose spirit inhabits the kin was one of the good people, the daughter of a nobleman. Her father left court and brought his family here to his country estate. Though in retirement, the noble corresponded with the emperor and retained his reputation and prestige. The lady had many suitors who hoped to gain from her father’s connections, but she liked none of them. Instead, she fell in love with a country gentleman—a young man way below her in rank; a man little better than a farmer.”

“Oh dear,” Hiromasa sighed.

Seimei stroked his fingers across the kin, letting the chords weave into his words. “He brought her gifts according to the season—flowers, fruit, feathers—and she played the kin for him. She ran away with him in early summer, in the fifth month, and they seemed to turn into weeds and vanish into the fields.”

“Like the bird,” Hiromasa interrupted. “The shrike.” He shivered, remembering the way the shrike had stared at him from the tree.

“Indeed.” Seimei paused to adjust one of the tuning pegs, played a few notes, then resumed his story. “The lady and her lover were discovered by her family and dragged from their hiding place. Grief-stricken, she swore to end her life rather than live without him. Her lover promised he would find a way to rescue her from her family. He told her he would wait forever and begged her to keep faith with him.

“The lady’s father was furious at such an imprudent liaison. Afraid of the potential for gossip should the news reach court, and what effect such gossip would have on his reputation, the nobleman decided to marry his daughter to the next suitable man who offered for her. Until the negotiations were complete, he locked his daughter in her room with not even a maidservant for company.”

Hiromasa sniffled. “How cruel!”

Seimei played a variation on the melody. “Despite her father’s watchfulness, the lady’s lover got a message to her. He told her he would come for her on the first day of the rains. The lady, who had only her kin as solace in her prison, whiled away the long hours playing her lover’s favourite song.”

The notes blurred. Seimei’s voice dropped. “The rains were unseasonably late that year. The lady waited and waited. Her father found her a bridegroom. With the day of her marriage creeping ever closer, the lady stopped playing the kin and stood watching the heavens. Still the rains did not come; still her lover stayed away.”

Seimei stopped playing. The room rang with silence. “The night before her marriage, the lady played her kin one final time. She unfastened the silk strings from the tuning pegs and braided them together, made a noose, and hanged herself.”

Hiromasa shook his head. “How awful.”

“When the lover found out, he wept.” The music started again, but this time Seimei took his hands from the instrument and let the kin play by itself. “He wept, and his grief brought forth the rains. He cursed the lady’s family and their lands, swore a terrible oath of revenge, and vanished into the fields. Fearful of the curse, the family donated their estate to a cell of monks caring for the nearby shrine. They built the monastery on the family’s land, and the kin—and the lady’s spirit—have remained here ever since.”

The melody came to an end, its last notes drifting away into memory. Hiromasa gave a deep sigh. “You were right—that is a sad story. I don’t like sad stories.” He touched the silent kin, stroking the dark wood. “What happened to her lover?”

Seimei looked at him. “He became a demon, and year after year, as promised, he still waits for her.”

* * *


They wrapped the kin and took it out of the monastery. Hiromasa retraced his footsteps of the previous day, following the trail of his panicked, waterlogged flight. They entered the woods, and when they came to the clearing surrounded by brambles and canopied by pine trees, Seimei knelt in the grass and uncovered the kin. He set it on his lap and waited, head cocked, listening to the sound of the wind through the branches.

Hiromasa glanced around, his gaze drawn by the tiny corpses impaled upon the thorns. The macabre decoration made him shiver, and he edged closer to Seimei.

A flurry, a clatter of birdsong, and the shrike flew into the clearing. It perched on the branch above its larder and looked at them.

Leaning over the instrument, Seimei struck the opening notes of the tune. Hiromasa found himself tensing, his fists clenched as he watched the shrike flick up and down the branch, its movements agitated. Its hooked bill opened; it warbled. Its sharp black eyes shone and it lifted its wings, flapping, struggling.

Seimei took his hands from the strings. The kin played on, the melody repeating, growing louder each time. In the tree, the shrike fluttered, increasingly frantic. It shrieked as if trying to drown out the music, but the kin sounded its notes even louder than before.

With gentle care, Seimei slid the kin from his knees and placed it on the grass. He rose and backed away, catching Hiromasa’s sleeve and pulling him to a safe distance.

The shrike hurled itself from the tree. As it fell, its body shimmered, becoming larger, becoming monstrous, and Hiromasa gave a squeak of fear as he saw what the headman must have seen two nights ago—a gigantic winged beast with a hooked beak. The shrike demon screamed and battered at the instrument with its wings, its claws catching in the silken strings. Its cries grew to a pitch and intensity that made Hiromasa wince, then it fell silent.

From the kin came the ghost of a woman, her form pale and silvery. She wrapped herself around the shrike demon and tucked her head against its breast. The kin played on, the melody soft now, quiet and soothing. Hiromasa clutched at Seimei’s arm as the shrike demon changed shape again, the terrifying form melting away to reveal the shade of a handsome young gentleman.

The two ghosts embraced. Their features blurred, their outlines starting to fade. By the time the last notes of the song rang out, both the lady and her lover had vanished.

The strings of the kin snapped, and the instrument fell quiet. Silvery dust covered the ground, and silence spread through the woods like ripples of water.

Hiromasa took a breath and heaved a huge sigh. “They’ve gone.”

“A happy ending,” Seimei said. He arched an eyebrow. “That’s what you wanted, wasn’t it? A sad romance with a happy ending.”

“Yes, but...” Hiromasa flapped a hand at the shrike’s larder. “All those people the demon murdered over the years. They didn’t have happy endings.”

Seimei touched Hiromasa’s arm. “You can’t save everyone. We cannot alter fate.”

Hiromasa nodded, a note of melancholy still lingering.

“Well,” said Seimei, crouching to tie the broken strings around the body of the kin, “I think our stay here is concluded.”

Pulling himself from his thoughts, Hiromasa asked, “You feel rested enough to continue the journey home?”

Seimei gave him a tender look. “Quite rested, thank you.”

Hiromasa blushed with pleasure. “We should tell the people of Kuwana that they will never again be troubled by the demon and the haunted kin.”

“Very well.” Seimei rewrapped the instrument in his cloak.

“The spice merchant offered us the use of his ox-cart for the remainder of our travels,” Hiromasa continued.

Pausing in his task, Seimei glanced up. “I think I would prefer to ride.”

“But the rains have come,” Hiromasa said. “We’ll get wet.”

“I’ll take that chance.” Seimei lifted the kin into his arms, a wicked gleam in his eyes as he headed for the trees. “We’ll have more opportunities to break our journey now the rains are here.”

It took Hiromasa a moment to catch Seimei’s meaning, and then he laughed. “So we shall! You have the most excellent ideas, Seimei.”

Seimei took tighter hold of the kin and smiled over his shoulder. “Come, Hiromasa. The road awaits.”





Footnote: I had the basic plot for this story before I went to China, but I wasn’t sure if I’d write it. The day I arrived in Huzhou, I stood on the balcony of my brother’s apartment and heard the most unearthly noise. It was somewhere between the shriek of a parrot and the scream-bark of a fox, and the noise rose in intensity until it broke off in a warbling clatter. “What the hell is that?” I asked. “A shrike,” said my brother. I laughed. And I wrote the story.
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