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Title: Stealing a Smile
Fandom: Onmyouji
Pairing: Seimei/Hiromasa
Rating: PG
Word count: 5651
Summary: Hiromasa’s cousin loses her smile.
Notes: For the [livejournal.com profile] smallfandomfest prompt ‘smile’.


Stealing a Smile


The ox-cart rattled along Nishi-no-Toin Avenue as fast as the driver could goad the animal, which wasn’t fast enough for Hiromasa. He flipped aside the patterned coverings and peered out at their location, roughly ten feet further than the last time he’d looked. With a grumble of annoyance, he let the curtain fall and gnawed his lower lip before he pressed his knuckles to his mouth.

“Don’t fret so much, Hiromasa.” Seimei reclined in an elegant almost-sprawl on the other side of the carriage, a pale blue and silver fan shielding his face.

“Why shouldn’t I fret?” Hiromasa demanded, resisting the urge to glance out of the ox-cart for the twelfth time. “My poor cousin! She needs my help—your help, actually—our help...”

“Mm. So you said back at the house.” Seimei pushed aside the fan. He looked tired, his skin paler than usual and shadows smudged beneath his eyes. “Remind me again why your cousin needs my help?”

“Our help. You weren’t listening, were you? Really, Seimei—”

“My dear Hiromasa, I was awake all night conducting spells and incantations for the Grand Counsellor, who thought he was being cursed by one of his under-secretaries. The whole experience was tedious in the extreme, and I was quite comfortably asleep when you burst into my house and woke me so rudely.”

“I wasn’t rude.”

Seimei arched an eyebrow. “I believe you kicked me.”

Hiromasa blushed. “It was only a tap. And I only did it because you didn’t respond when I shook you, and I shook you really hard, so I was worried. I thought you were ill, or in some kind of trance, or—or—”

“Asleep,” Seimei finished with a tiny sigh. He stretched out on the cushions padding the interior space of the ox-cart. He’d gathered them all to him as soon as he’d climbed inside the carriage, leaving only one cushion for Hiromasa to sit on. Hiromasa supposed it was a fair distribution, all things considered, but his backside was sore from the jolting of the ox-cart and they were still several streets away from their destination.

Seimei yawned behind his fan. “Tell me again about your cousin.”

Gathering his patience, Hiromasa rubbed his hands over his face and said with slow deliberation, as if to a child, “Kodayu has lost her smile.”

“Ah.” Seimei peeked around the fan. “That’s what I thought you said before.”

Hiromasa stared at him. “You thought I was joking? Seimei! I wouldn’t joke about something like this!”

“My apologies. I am paying attention now, I do assure you.” Seimei’s voice furred and his eyes shut as he snuggled deeper into the cushions.

Irritation flashed, and Hiromasa lurched on hands and knees across the swaying ox-cart. He grabbed Seimei’s fan, snapped it shut, and rapped it against Seimei’s nose. Seimei’s look of startled surprise almost made Hiromasa laugh, but he mastered the impulse and kept a sober countenance. “Kodayu is my favourite cousin. She’s a sweet young girl of great charm and prettiness. She’s kind and gentle and educated and—”

Seimei yawned again. “Forgive me, Hiromasa, I really am tired.”

Hiromasa glared. “Anyway, Kodayu woke this morning and her smile had vanished. She has the most beautiful smile! But it’s gone, and no matter what we’ve tried, nothing will bring it back.”

“Goodness,” Seimei said, retrieving his fan and examining its cherry-wood ribs. “How peculiar. Have you tried telling her a joke?”

“Well, yes. That was my first idea when her mother, Lady Hyoe, sent a messenger to inform us of the tragedy. But my aunt doesn’t have much of a sense of humour, and the only jokes I know aren’t particularly suitable for the ears of an innocent young girl.” Hiromasa frowned at the memory. “Several others took it in turns to tell Kodayu funny stories, but she didn’t laugh. Not even when everyone else did. That’s when I realised her condition must be serious.”

“You could try tickling her,” Seimei suggested.

“I couldn’t do that!” Hiromasa sat up straight, shocked. “She’s an unmarried girl. Tickling her would be highly improper.”

Seimei smiled.

“Anyway,” Hiromasa continued, narrowing his gaze at Seimei’s impish expression, “the family has tried everything. Even now, a group of Buddhist monks are chanting sutras for her—”

“And she doesn’t find that amusing?”

“Seimei, be serious, this is a serious matter...”

“Oh yes, I can tell.” Opening the fan, Seimei waved it in a languid manner.

Hiromasa gritted his teeth and forged ahead. “One of your colleagues attended her this morning and said—”

The fan stilled. “Who?”

Annoyed, Hiromasa batted the question away. “Does it matter? He said—”

“Does it matter?” Seimei drew himself up from the cushions, almost bristling with affront. “Of course it matters, Hiromasa, don’t be foolish. Most of my colleagues are incompetent. I wouldn’t even trust them to draw a straight line, let alone attempt divination.”

The carriage trundled into a rut. Outside, the driver shouted at the ox, and the cart rattled and swayed as the beast laboured to pull its burden out of the churned ground. Hiromasa attempted to keep his dignity as he rocked from side to side on his solitary cushion. “It was Akiyama no Sanefusa. I didn’t summon him. My aunt did.”

“Well, he is less idiotic than most.” Seeming a little less disgruntled now, Seimei settled back into his pile of cushions. “What did he say?”

“That Kodayu isn’t possessed.”

“Good to know.”

“But as for her smile, he had no answer, no explanation.”

Seimei flicked his fan. “I said he was less idiotic. That isn’t a recommendation of his talents.”

“Ordinarily I would find your snobbery as entertaining as you do, but not today. Not when my poor cousin is so miserable.” Hiromasa sighed, letting his shoulders droop until he was certain he was the very image of a man suffering from acute unhappiness and concern. He heaved another sigh. “I don’t think Master Sanefusa really bothered to examine Kodayu. He seemed distracted the whole time he was at the house, as if he had more important things on his mind. My aunt was quite disgusted with his attitude and said all yin yang masters were good-for-nothings.”

“Did she, indeed?” Seimei stretched a little, his eyes gleaming.

Hiromasa nodded vigorously. “She did.”

“Oh, Hiromasa.” Seimei put down his fan and broke into laughter. “You don’t need to appeal to my vanity. You know I will help your cousin.”

Hiromasa smiled and lifted the curtain, looking out into the street again.

* * *


Lady Hyoe was waiting for them in the main hall, standing straight-backed with her hands folded, a fan of teal-blue and white paper held tight in her grasp. Hiromasa entered the room first and bowed, trying to give the impression of haste and concern. The effect was rather spoiled by Seimei’s more leisurely entrance as he paused to study several painted screens, hanging scrolls, and Chinese porcelain.

Hiromasa signalled Seimei to hurry up and bowed again, his smile aching. Seimei came to stand beside him, looking at Lady Hyoe with interest.

In return, Lady Hyoe fixed Seimei with her piercing gaze and surveyed him from the curled toes of his suede boots to the top of his lacquered hat before making any comment.

“You are the one they call Abe no Seimei.”

“I am, Lady Hyoe.” At last Seimei inclined his head in the briefest of bows.

Lady Hyoe sniffed. “Your father was Abe no Yasuna, I believe.”

“He was.”

“Only upper sixth rank, if I recall correctly. And you, Master Seimei?”

“Junior fifth rank.” Seimei flicked a glance at Hiromasa.

Hiromasa winced inwardly. He’d forgotten to warn his friend about his aunt’s rigid insistence of the courtesies of rank. “Aunt,” he interrupted, earning a freezing look from that lady, “Lord Seimei came here at my request to help Kodayu. Surely there’s no time to waste in social niceties.”

“My dear nephew, there is every reason to observe the correct protocol.” Lady Hyoe raised her fan and flicked it open, partially concealing her face with it. “I need to be absolutely certain that your acquaintance is competent before I permit him to examine my precious child.”

Rolling his eyes was not an option, so Hiromasa forced another smile to his face. “Aunt, Seimei is very well qualified. He’s the best yin yang master at court—no, he’s the best in Japan, I guarantee it, and I assure you there’s no one better suited to treating the strange malady that’s affecting my poor dear cousin!”

Another sniff, this time accompanied by a calculating look. “If you speak so highly of him, I suppose the rumours must be true.”

Hiromasa gave a noisy sigh. “Not the fox thing again—”

“About you two being lovers.” Lady Hyoe snapped her fan shut against the palm of her hand and gave them both a penetrating stare.

Aware that his face was wreathed in a blush, Hiromasa dropped his gaze. “Aunt, maybe it’s time we saw Kodayu...”

“Yes, you should.” Lady Hyoe turned, the train of her gown sweeping out in a flourish of stylish colours. “Follow me. And tell your... friend not to touch anything.”

Hiromasa gave Seimei an apologetic look as they fell into step behind her, but it seemed from Seimei’s expression that he found the incident amusing. Relieved, Hiromasa increased his pace as they went towards Kodayu’s rooms. Against all reason he hoped that a miracle had occurred during his absence and that his cousin had been cured, but a pall of anxiety hung about the hall like funeral smoke. A couple of sad-faced maids stood disconsolate, and Kodayu herself had retreated behind a standing curtain of plain weave.

“Daughter,” Lady Hyoe said, her voice ringing around the room, “here is your cousin again. With him is his... friend, Master Seimei of the Bureau of Divination. Don’t be shy, girl, you are properly chaperoned, so come out and let Master Seimei examine you.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Kodayu emerged from behind the curtain and knelt on the green and black matting. Hiromasa felt his chest constrict with fresh sorrow. The little girl he’d so loved to tease and play ball with when she was a child had grown into a pretty young woman of fifteen, but her smile, the feature he loved the most, had been wiped from her face. Kodayu still had a mouth, but it did not resemble a human mouth. More like the alien mouth of a catfish, it was enough for her to speak and eat but otherwise was shapeless, colourless, and unable to portray emotion.

He let out a worried breath and glanced at Seimei. His friend showed no horror or pity; betrayed nothing at all beyond a slight lift of his arched brows. Without waiting to be invited, he knelt on the floor in front of Kodayu and studied her face.

“Interesting,” Seimei murmured, more to himself than to anyone else, but Lady Hyoe overheard.

“Interesting, he says. What kind of diagnosis is that, I ask you!” She gave him a cold look. “One of your colleagues was here earlier. Master Sanefusa. He didn’t say Kodayu’s condition was interesting. He was most concerned. He gave her a herbal infusion to drink, but of course it didn’t work. Then he had the temerity to ask if there were any unusual medical conditions in our family. How dare he suggest such a thing! He wanted to touch Kodayu but I wouldn’t permit it. He’d already felt her pulse. A man with knowledge of these things should be able to discern from the pulse what ails a patient, am I not right, Master Seimei?”

Seimei yawned.

Kodayu’s eyes widened in shock, and Hiromasa thought he saw a glimpse of merriment pass across her features before she composed herself.

Lady Hyoe stood frozen. “Well,” she said after a long moment. “Well, I never. What an ill-bred creature your friend is, nephew! Are all men of junior fifth rank like that? How terrible. I suppose you think it’s amusing. I suppose—”

Hiromasa tried to mollify her. “No, aunt. Seimei didn’t mean to be rude. He was awake all night helping the Grand Counsellor rid himself of a dangerous curse.”

“The Grand Counsellor?” Lady Hyoe blinked rapidly, considering this news. “He is a man of great refinement and known to have excellent taste in his companions. Hmm. Awake all night, you say. And was the spell successful?”

“Um...” Hiromasa realised he hadn’t actually enquired about the outcome. He glanced towards Seimei, who nodded. “Yes,” Hiromasa continued, turning his most cheerful smile upon his aunt. “I’m delighted to say the spells Seimei cast were completely successful.”

Lady Hyoe nodded. “I’m pleased to hear it. Perhaps he will be able to cure my dear Kodayu after—”

Her words broke off in a garbled sound of disbelief and affront. Hiromasa turned to see Seimei with one hand on Kodayu’s shoulder and the other splayed over her mouth. A pretty blush suffused Kodayu’s cheeks and her gaze looked slumberous.

Conscious of the way women responded whenever Seimei performed an exorcism, Hiromasa uttered a startled yelp. Hurrying over, he grabbed the back of Seimei’s hunting costume and hauled him sideways. “You said she wasn’t possessed!”

“Akiyama no Sanefusa said she wasn’t possessed.” Seimei righted himself, adjusted the collar of his robes, and gave Kodayu a reassuring smile before he looked up at Hiromasa. “She’s not possessed, by the way. I wasn’t exorcising her. I was merely attempting to determine if I could restore her smile by means of acupressure.”

“Oh.” Hiromasa stepped back, a little shamefaced. “Uh, can you?”

“No.” Seimei smiled at Kodayu again. “But it was worth a try. As is this—Lady Kodayu, did you hear the story about a certain third rank noblewoman who was caught in the most embarrassing situation with a common porter? Apparently, she...”

Hiromasa didn’t hear the rest of the tale because Seimei leaned forward and whispered it into Kodayu’s ear. Whatever had happened between the third rank lady and the porter was no doubt completely scandalous, for Kodayu made spluttering noises that were almost laughter, and she blushed, and her eyes danced—but she didn’t smile.

Lady Hyoe strode forward. “Master Seimei, kindly cease your prattling gossip! My daughter has no interest in such things. Please effect a cure immediately, or you—and my nephew—will be escorted from the house.”

Seimei sighed and shuffled a decorous distance from Kodayu. “Lady Hyoe, you should rejoice that despite the affliction, your daughter still enjoys a rare sense of humour. It is truly a shame that her smile has been stolen from her.”

“Stolen?” echoed Lady Hyoe.

Hiromasa watched his cousin and saw Kodayu’s expression dim and her gaze drop. Concern brought him to his haunches beside Seimei. “Somebody stole her smile?”

“Yes,” said Seimei, lowering his voice to a soft timbre Hiromasa had heard only a few times before. “And you know why, don’t you, Lady Kodayu?”

She looked up at him, startled once more. “Me?” she said, the words strange through her lipless mouth. Briefly her gaze darted to her mother, then she fixed on Seimei again. “You are asking my opinion?”

He gave her an encouraging smile. “I am, my lady.”

“But...” Another glance at her mother, this time wary. Her voice became very small. “You will not believe me.”

Seimei leaned closer. “Try me.”

“It’s because...” Kodayu whispered, her eyes brimming, her face pale, “it’s because of Middle Captain Yukiyoshi.”

Lady Hyoe, who had bent almost double in order to hear her daughter’s quiet words, stood up straight with a squawk of horror. “A man! This has happened because of a man?”

“Middle Captain Yukiyoshi?” Hiromasa repeated, a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. As if it wasn’t enough that Yukiyoshi had half the ladies at court in love with him, as if it wasn’t enough that Hiromasa had had to rely on Seimei’s trickery to beat Yukiyoshi in the palace archery contest—not that Seimei had actually cast any spells, but that wasn’t the point—as if it wasn’t enough that Yukiyoshi was the Emperor’s favourite dining companion, the man had the gall to trifle with Kodayu!

“Middle Captain Yukiyoshi!” Hiromasa cried, jumping to his feet and waving his arms. “What an outrageous scoundrel! I will challenge him to a duel! I will—I will—”

“You will take your aunt and her screeching out of this room and let me work in peace,” Seimei said, and sat looking at him in pointed silence.

Hiromasa drew in a deep breath, glanced at his weeping cousin, and turned his attention to his aunt. Lady Hyoe was pacing up and down shrieking invectives, half at Middle Captain Yukiyoshi and half at her own daughter for encouraging the attentions of such a rogue.

Seimei made a shooing gesture. Hiromasa bared his teeth at his friend then adopted a soothing demeanour and approached Lady Hyoe. “Aunt, we have received a terrible shock. Allow me to settle you elsewhere with your women and a restorative cup of wine...”

Still shrieking, Lady Hyoe nevertheless permitted him to steer her towards her own quarters. Her women rushed to attend her, and as soon as she saw them, Lady Hyoe began a recital of everything that had just transpired, the account embroidered a little more with each breath.

Hiromasa waited until his aunt vanished into her rooms, then he hurried back. The two maids sat behind Kodayu, stroking her long, glossy hair and making needless adjustments to the outspread layers of her robes. Kodayu herself had stopped weeping and sat straight, hands in her lap, her features calm though her chin trembled. She and Seimei both looked at him as he entered.

Seimei nodded. “Now, Lady Kodayu, perhaps you will tell us about your relationship with Middle Captain Yukiyoshi.”

The name burned like a brand. Hiromasa forced himself not to react. He settled himself beside Seimei and waited for his cousin to speak.

Kodayu met Hiromasa’s gaze, her head held high. “I’m sorry, cousin. I didn’t mean to fall in love with him, but Yukiyoshi is so kind...”

“Kind?” Hiromasa blinked. Kindness was not a quality he associated with the smug, too-handsome captain.

“You think he is a wastrel, like Mother does.” Kodayu gave Hiromasa a reproachful look. “But he isn’t. He came to my rescue three months ago when our ox-cart got trapped in the western half of the city. I’d gone there with a friend and my maids to buy a book—yes, I know it was a risky enterprise and Mother would have forbidden both the trip and the book-buying, so I lied to her and said we were going to the Divine Spring Gardens to admire the flowers.”

Kodayu’s eyes shone with defiance, and Hiromasa didn’t have the heart to scold her for the transgression. “What happened?” he asked.

“We got caught in a street brawl. I don’t know how it started. One moment we were talking and laughing inside the carriage, and the next thing I knew, we were being tossed about like straw dolls and a crowd surged around us, banging on the wagon and tearing at the curtains. We were terrified.”

Kodayu’s face showed some of her emotions as she relived the memory. She shook her head. “He rescued us. Middle Captain Yukiyoshi. He came riding in on a white horse and he unsheathed his sword and scared off the rabble...”

Hiromasa grunted and looked away.

“He was so heroic, cousin!” Kodayu sat forward in her eagerness to tell her tale. “And he rode up to us and swore we had his protection for the rest of the day. But in all honesty, after the fright we’d had, we just wanted to return home. He escorted us, walking his horse behind the carriage, and we talked through the curtains. I told him about the book I’d wanted to buy. He made me promise never to go into the western city ever again. After we returned home, he said farewell and rode off.

“Imagine my surprise when the next day, a silk-wrapped parcel came for me. I told Mother it was a gift from my friend, but it was from him—Yukiyoshi. He’d bought the book for me.” Kodayu blushed prettily. “Naturally I wrote to thank him, and we began corresponding in secret. Now he says he wants to marry me”

Hiromasa cleared his throat. “He’s already married.”

Kodayu gave him a patient look. “His wife is twice his age and constantly on retreat at a nunnery in Tamba. I would not be jealous of her, nor she of me.”

“I don’t want you to be a junior wife. Even if his principal wife isn’t in the capital, I still don’t like it.” Hiromasa plucked at a loose thread on his cloak, unable to look at her. “Kodayu, you’re my favourite cousin. I can’t countenance giving you to a man who won’t appreciate you. Certainly I won’t agree to the match when he’s just about the most notorious flirt at court.”

“Oh, Hiromasa!” Kodayu shook off her maids and stood, her hair brushing against the floor. Beneath the smothering layers of her robes, her body trembled. “He has explained his actions to me. He is a flirt but not a scoundrel. I believe him. You, however, believe his reputation, and so you don’t bother to see if there’s any truth in it.”

Seimei gave Hiromasa a sidelong look. “Lady Kodayu has a point.”

“Very well, so he’s a saint.” With a sigh, Hiromasa rubbed a hand over his face. “How did this lead to the loss of your smile?”

Kodayu sank down again onto the matting. “I told you I was not alone when I went to the western city. My friend also fell in love with the Middle Captain. At first I thought it was amusing—our tastes are not at all similar, yet we admired the same man, and it was so wonderful to be able to confide in a friend and discuss Yukiyoshi’s finer attributes—”

Hiromasa made a strangled sound.

Seimei gave him a sharp look then returned his attention to Kodayu. “You told your friend that he was writing to you.”

“Yes.” Kodayu lowered her gaze, the light fading from her expression. “Maybe it was my own fault. I wanted her to share my happiness. I didn’t mean to hurt her—I truly didn’t know her affections towards him were so strong. I thought it was real only for me, that she loved him the way we love heroes in romances—as something distant and fleeting.”

“She was jealous,” Seimei said.

Kodayu nodded. She fidgeted with the hem of her Chinese jacket. “When I told her that Yukiyoshi wanted to marry me, my friend said she would win him from me. She said she would stop at nothing to get him. I thought she would try to entice him somehow, but I think—I fear—that she has decided to attack me instead.” She lifted her hand to cover her lipless mouth.

“Let me guess,” Seimei said softly, “Middle Captain Yukiyoshi told you he liked your smile.”

Kodayu hid her face in her sleeves. “He said my smile was like poetry to him.”

Hiromasa rolled his eyes and huffed.

“Lady Kodayu.” Seimei leaned forward and touched her sleeves, drawing her hands away from her face. “Tell me the name of your friend.”

She looked at him wide-eyed. “Promise you won’t hurt her. She has suffered enough.”

“I promise.” Seimei tilted his head. “Her name?”

“Nakahime.” Kodayu gave up the name with a sad sigh. “Her uncle was here earlier. The yin yang master Akiyama no Sanefusa.”

* * *


“It’s outrageous,” Hiromasa said as they walked the three and a half blocks to the Akiyama residence. “Completely outrageous that one of your colleagues should stoop so low. To concern himself with a squabble between two young women! Especially a squabble involving Middle Captain Yukiyoshi.”

Seimei made an amused sound. “You will have to put aside your prejudices regarding that gentleman, Hiromasa. He will soon become your cousin-in-law.”

Hiromasa stared at him. “Then it is their destiny to marry?”

Another amused sound.

“I suppose I could learn to like him. But only for Kodayu’s sake,” Hiromasa grumbled. “I still don’t see why she wants to be his junior wife.”

“She loves him,” Seimei said, his voice very soft. “And he loves her. That’s a rare enough occurrence in this world. Believe me, Hiromasa—they will be happy.”

“Oh, very well.” Hiromasa kicked at a lump of dried mud, sending it bouncing across the street. “If you say so, I will believe it. As soon as Kodayu’s smile is restored, I’ll speak to Aunt Hyoe about the match.”

They walked a short distance in silence. Hiromasa tried to think unbiased thoughts about Middle Captain Yukiyoshi. Putting aside the fact that Yukiyoshi was far too handsome and far too charming, Hiromasa decided there were a few good things about him. The fact that he’d lost the archery contest, for example. The fact that he’d gone to the aid of Kodayu and her friend. The fact that he’d courted Kodayu with respect and affection. No doubt he had other sterling qualities, but for now those were enough. If Kodayu was happy with her choice, Hiromasa would support her.

“I still can’t believe that Master Sanefusa involved himself in such a scheme,” Hiromasa said as they approached the Akiyama estate.

“He didn’t.”

“He didn’t?” Hiromasa stopped walking.

Seimei turned to face him. “I told you earlier that Sanefusa was less idiotic than most of my colleagues. That means I trust him not to violate the most basic rules of our profession. I think you’ll find that Lady Nakahime took matters into her own hands, and her unfortunate uncle is now seeking a way to undo the mischief she has caused.”

Hiromasa pondered on this. “Outrageous!”

They continued the space of another block, slowing as they came to the house. A burly manservant stood at the closed gates. He eyed Hiromasa and Seimei with mistrust. “My lord and his family are not receiving today.”

“Nonsense,” said Seimei, and waved his hand.

The gates swung open with a crash. The manservant gaped and then took to his heels, rushing into the house and shouting for his master. After a brief pause, Akiyama no Sanefusa came out onto the veranda, looking distracted and weary. He stared at them, apparently bewildered, and then his expression cleared.

“Seimei! And Lord Hiromasa—how nice of you to visit on a day when I’m not receiving visitors...”

Seimei sauntered across the courtyard and went up onto the veranda. “I believe you need my help. Is your niece in here?” He brushed past Sanefusa, who did nothing to stop him, and stepped inside the main hall.

“Er, yes. My brother’s eldest girl. She’s within.” Sanefusa twisted his hands together in a nervous gesture, apparently unable to decide whether to follow Seimei or attend to Hiromasa. Looking back and forth, Sanefusa began, “Seimei, I must warn you...”

Hiromasa hurried over, not wanting to miss a thing. “It’s all right, Master Sanefusa, we know what happened.”

“You do?” Sanefusa peered at him, looking relieved. “Oh. Good. Perhaps Seimei could find some way to undo the spell. It’s quite troublesome. I spent all morning on it and still I’ve got nowhere.” He led the way inside, and Hiromasa glanced around at the arrangement of furniture and screens. Beyond the main hall, out in the garden, several children played under the watchful eyes of a group of men and women.

Sanefusa saw the direction of Hiromasa’s gaze. “I told them to go outside,” he said. “My brother has been blessed with a multitude of offspring. I thought it best to keep the little ones away from their elder sister while she looks like... while she’s so sorely afflicted.”

Hiromasa murmured something appropriate and followed Sanefusa towards a curtained recess at the far corner of the room. The curtains had been drawn back and Seimei crouched on the floor in front of a young woman.

“Ah, Seimei, you found her.” Sanefusa came to a halt. “What do you think? Can she be cured?”

As Seimei turned, Hiromasa caught sight of the girl. He barely suppressed a cry of shock. Lady Nakahime had two mouths, one above the other—one a perfectly charming smile, the other a miserable grimace.

“That’s Kodayu’s smile!” Hiromasa burst out.

Seimei gave him a stern look. “Quite.”

Shaken, Hiromasa bowed. “Forgive me, Lady Nakahime. It’s just—I didn’t expect...”

Nakahime lowered her head and sniffled.

“Can you cure her?” Sanefusa asked again, seemingly unconcerned by Hiromasa’s lapse of manners.

“Oh yes, I can cure her,” Seimei said, returning his gaze to the girl. “If Lady Nakahime wants to be cured, that is. If she repents of the wrong she has done to her friend Lady Kodayu.”

Nakahime began to weep. “I do repent! I didn’t mean for this to happen!” She spoke through both of her mouths. “I never meant to hurt Kodayu. I thought if her smile became ugly, Yukiyoshi wouldn’t like her anymore and might prefer me.”

Sanefusa sighed. “The silly girl tried to cast a spell she’d found in one of my books from the imperial Tang court. I’ve told my brother so many times—if he’s going to educate his daughters, educate them properly! But would he listen to me? Of course not. And because he neglected to school Nakahime in Chinese, this happened. An imperfect, incomplete spell.”

Hiromasa blinked. “Girls shouldn’t learn Chinese.”

“Bah, what are you so scared of?” Sanefusa shook his sleeves irritably. “If my niece had learned Chinese, she’d have cast the spell correctly and I wouldn’t have wasted half the day trying to undo it.”

Seimei chuckled. “Come now, Sanefusa, let us restore the smile to its rightful owner. Mulberry paper, if you please—the thickest you have—and a bowl of water.”

Sanefusa fetched the items, and Hiromasa watched as Seimei leaned over the bowl and traced shapes onto the surface of the water. The paper he took in his left hand, and he drew upon it with wet fingers until it began to soften. Half turning away from his curious colleague, he whispered into the paper, his words increasing in urgency until he stopped, jerked upright, and slapped the damp paper over Nakahime’s mouths.

She squeaked in shock and tried to squirm backwards. Seimei kept his hand firmly over her mouths, snapped out a command in a tongue Hiromasa didn’t understand, then tore the paper away.

Nakahime gave a scream and clamped her hands to her face. Her shock became joy as she realised her features had been restored, and the scream gave way to tears.

Seimei furled the paper, but not before Hiromasa saw the unnerving sight of his cousin’s pretty smile imprinted upon its surface. As he watched, Seimei pushed the paper and the smile into the bowl of water, murmured a spell over it, then sat back. Both paper and smile had vanished.

Hiromasa started forward, staring into the bowl. “The smile—it’s returned to Kodayu?”

“Yes.” Seimei straightened his sleeves. “We will go back to your aunt’s house to check, of course, but there won’t be any problems. The spell is highly effective at restoring lost items to their true owners.”

“Including smiles?”

“Including smiles.” Seimei stood and drew the curtain around Nakahime, who still sat sobbing. “Perhaps her mother should attend to her.”

Sanefusa made a worried sound. “You won’t punish her, will you, Seimei?”

Seimei shook his head. “Your niece is fortunate in her friend. I promised Lady Kodayu that no harm would come to Lady Nakahime.” He paused, then continued in a different tone, “But you, Master Sanefusa—you should keep your books away from inquisitive eyes. The human heart can be tempted by even the most innocuous spells, and once an untutored person has a taste for magic, it can lure them down ever more dangerous paths...”

“Oh! You’re right. Goodness.” Sanefusa clutched his hands together and frowned. “I have long been of the opinion that my books should be kept someplace other than my home. There are so many children here—I always worried that they’d damage the books, but never did I think anyone would actually attempt to use them. Oh dear. I suppose I should leave them at the Bureau, but I’m sure one of our less trustworthy colleagues would borrow them and never bring them back...”

He fell silent for a while, his frown deepening, and then he brightened. “Seimei, would you take my books? It’s only a meagre collection, really. I would be most grateful if you could look after them for me.”

Seimei gave him a brilliant smile. “I would be delighted.”

* * *


“You planned that, didn’t you?” Hiromasa staggered back along the street in the direction of his aunt’s house, carrying a heavy pile of books and scrolls. “Admit it, Seimei. Admit it or I’ll drop these books into the mud.”

Seimei laughed. “I didn’t plan it, but I admit I took advantage of the situation. I’ve wanted to get my hands on some of these texts for—oh, years. This was the perfect opportunity.”

“It seems slightly underhand to me,” Hiromasa grumbled. “Especially as I have to carry them all. As if I haven’t had a difficult enough day already! Really, Seimei, sometimes I wonder why I get out of bed in the mornings.”

“Cheer up, Hiromasa,” said Seimei, an impish gleam in his eyes. “I believe you have a wedding to arrange.”

Hiromasa groaned. “Only if I can convince Aunt Hyoe to let Kodayu marry Middle Captain Yukiyoshi...”

Seimei gave him an infuriating smile. “Oh, you’ll manage.”


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