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The Hawk Killer


Hiromasa trudged along Nishiki Road East, placing his bare feet carefully. A light rain had fallen overnight, enough to dampen the surface of the roads to sliding mud. It made walking a dangerous affair, especially in cheap wooden and plaited straw sandals. Particularly when the straw had gone rotten. After he’d slipped over twice, Hiromasa had given up on the sandals and took to carrying them in one hand. It made him look more like a peasant than a nobleman, but following several unproductive and unpleasant meetings with members of his family over the last few days, Hiromasa had begun to wonder if he wouldn’t be happier living as a peasant rather than trying to claim his birthright.

But his mother had insisted upon it, and Hiromasa had made a promise, and now she was dead and here he was in the capital, not quite regretting the promise but uncertain as to how to fulfil it.

Ahead, an ox-cart waited at the junction with Madeno Road. Hiromasa glanced at the handler, who wore the same placid expression as the beast he tended. The cart itself was undecorated, the side panels and canvas left plain. Hiromasa wondered who owned it. Perhaps someone of limited means; or maybe someone of exalted rank who wished to be discreet about his movements.

There was no other traffic on the street and no obvious reason for the cart to wait at the junction. Hiromasa gave the handler a polite nod as he passed. He shifted his broken and muddy sandals to the other hand and readjusted the biwa strapped to his back. He’d been lucky not to break it when he’d slipped earlier, so now it hung loose, bouncing across his back with every step and no doubt leaving bruises.

He’d gone scarcely five steps past the junction when the ox-cart pulled out, wheels rumbling. It drew alongside him. Hiromasa gave the handler a curious look, but the man ignored him. The ox ambled along, keeping pace with Hiromasa. It went faster when he went faster, slowed when he slowed.

Self-conscious now, Hiromasa darted surreptitious glances at the ox-cart. The small window in the side of the carriage remained shut, but nevertheless Hiromasa was convinced that the person, or persons, inside were watching him. But why would anyone be interested in him? He looked terrible, the hems and one side of his hakama covered in mud, his faded blue hunting costume worn thin at the elbows and fastened with twine rather than an elegant length of ribbon, and his lacquered hat dented and speckled with dirt. He looked barely presentable, which was perhaps why his relatives had viewed him with alarm rather than pleasure when he’d called on them.

Hiromasa stopped. The cart stopped. Hiromasa set off again. The cart followed alongside him. Hiromasa imagined himself breaking into a run. Surely he’d be faster than an ox-cart. Then he remembered the muddy road and how running would only exacerbate the jolt of the biwa against his back, and besides, the whole thing would present such a ridiculous sight...

He sighed and came to a halt facing the ox-cart. “Can I help you?”

After a pause, the cart rolled on a few paces and stopped again. A curtain at the rear was pushed aside and held back by a closed fan, and a man looked out. “How kind of you to ask, but rather I wish to help you.”

Hiromasa looked behind him, then up and down the road, wondering if the stranger was addressing someone else. “You want to help me?”

“Indeed.” The man smiled. He looked like he smiled often, and Hiromasa felt a warmth towards him.

“Why?”

“Goodness me, a direct question—how unusual.” The smile disappeared, but it lingered in the stranger’s eyes. “You can’t have been in the capital for long, my lord. If you wish to make a name for yourself here, you must learn both a little tact and the ability to prevaricate at length.”

Hiromasa stared. “Why did you call me ‘my lord’?”

“Because although you’re dressed like a peasant, you carry your worth as easily as you carry your sandals. You are a nobleman.” The stranger leaned forward, face alight with interest. “Tell me I’m right. I am rarely wrong.”

Despite his surprise, Hiromasa laughed. “Then you don’t need me to tell you you’re right.”

The stranger wriggled like a contented cat. “I would still like to hear it.”

“Very well, you’re right. My name is Minamoto no Hiromasa. I am the son of His Excellency of War, the late Former Prince Katsuakira.” Hiromasa bowed as best he could, the biwa swinging around to thud against his ribs.

“Ah,” said the stranger. He looked at Hiromasa with greater interest, then pushed back the curtain properly and tapped his fan against the floor of the cart. The ox-handler appeared around the side of the vehicle and folded out a set of steps, then stood back, as blank-faced as before.

“Please,” said the stranger, beckoning with his fan. “Join me.”

“I...” Hiromasa wavered, tempted by the offer. “Thank you, my lord—” for a lord this man surely was, although he had not yet introduced himself, “but I fear our paths do not lead in the same direction.”

The stranger smiled again, warm and charming. “The ox will take us wherever you wish to go.”

“You must have other, more pressing business to attend to.”

“Not at all.” The stranger’s smile became a chuckle. “I am quite at leisure.”

Unable to think of another excuse, Hiromasa unslung the biwa and climbed the three steps into the carriage. He put down the instrument and knelt on the wooden floor, concerned about transferring mud onto the colourful scatter of cushions. His sandals he tucked behind him out of sight.

The ox-handler stowed the steps and drew the curtains, enclosing them in a soft half-light. A moment later, the cart lurched and began to move forward.

The stranger tossed Hiromasa a cushion. “For your knees. I apologise for the poor trappings of my ox-cart. I have not yet devised a method of providing a smoother ride.”

Hiromasa took the cushion, fingering the embroidered design of silver thread, testing the quality of the silk. He slipped it beneath his knees and stifled a sigh of relief, immediately more comfortable. Sitting back on his heels, he took a proper look at his companion.

Sharp-featured, narrow-faced, the stranger had long eyes and a straight nose and a surprisingly full lower lip that hinted at sensuality as well as amusement. He was pale—remarkably so, even for a nobleman—and his skin seemed almost to glow faintly in the dim interior of the carriage. Hiromasa assumed this to be a trick of the filtered light reflecting off the stranger’s pristine white hunting costume. The stranger was far from conforming to the accepted ideals of beauty, but nevertheless there was something about him that Hiromasa found attractive.

Maybe it was the stranger’s smile, which showed itself again. “Do I please you?”

“Ah...” Hiromasa blushed, glad of the semi-darkness. He had no idea how to respond to the teasing question. Courtiers were supposed to be accomplished flirts, but he had little experience in the art. “You look interesting.”

“Interesting.” The stranger flicked his wrist and spread his fan, then lifted it to hide his amusement. “Thank you.” His eyes danced. “May I ask where you come from, Lord Hiromasa?”

“Musashi.” Hiromasa saw no point in hiding the truth. “My father was exiled to the province about thirty years ago.”

The stranger lowered his fan again. “You were born in Musashi? Yet you don’t behave like a provincial. Your parents raised you well.”

Hiromasa dropped his gaze. “They tried. Father died when I was still a child. After his death, Mother hoped we’d be able to return to the capital, but our circumstances were poor and although she applied to her family for assistance, no one was willing to help. But she never gave up hope.”

He smiled at the memory of her, surrounded by her women, sitting straight-backed and determined even when the illness had wasted her body. “I was lucky. Mother and her ladies were very educated. They made sure I could pass as a courtly gentleman... albeit a courtly gentleman of thirty years ago.”

“Fortunately court manners do not change as often as the colour combinations of ladies’ gowns,” the stranger said. “Apart from your propensity for speaking your mind, rest assured that your behaviour is quite correct.”

“Mother would be pleased.” Hiromasa’s smile faded.

The stranger hesitated. “She has passed into the Western Paradise?”

Hiromasa nodded, a stab of grief tightening his throat. He inhaled, then blew out his breath. “Before she died, Mother made me promise to return to the capital and regain our family honour. She said since I wasn’t born until seven years after the decree of exile, why should I suffer for my father’s errors of judgement?”

He looked at the stranger and saw quiet sympathy. “I am prepared to work hard to gain recognition at court. These last few days I’ve been calling on relatives from both sides of my family, but it seems none of them want to bear the taint of associating with me.”

“Goodness,” murmured the stranger. “I have heard your father’s name, but alas, I am ignorant of the facts surrounding his exile. What did he do to deserve such lingering disgrace?”

Hiromasa started to explain, only to stop when a thought struck him. His father had annoyed many nobles before his exile. Perhaps this gentleman was one of them, or at least related to one of them. Embarrassed, Hiromasa said, “I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name.”

“Abe no Seimei.”

“Abe...” Hiromasa tried to place the family, but drew a blank.

“I doubt your father did my father any harm,” Seimei said softly.

Hiromasa started. “What—how—I mean...”

Seimei chuckled. “You really should learn to dissemble, Hiromasa. You have the most expressive face.”

A blush burned Hiromasa’s cheeks. He coughed and mumbled incoherently, gathering his thoughts. “About my father’s exile... I’m afraid I don’t know much. My parents refused to discuss it, and all I know is what I gathered from the servants. It’s something to do with a plot sponsored by the late Retired Emperor Uda—something involving Sugawara no Michizane, who—so my young and no doubt foolish father was led to believe—hadn’t died in Dazaifu but was preparing to make his triumphant return to the capital.”

“Ah.” Seimei’s eyes gleamed in the half-light. “A pretty tangle, indeed. I believe most of the records relating to that affair were destroyed on imperial orders. You would be hard pressed to find the truth now, after thirty years. Those who remember those days will certainly not speak of it.”

Hiromasa lifted his chin. “No matter what my father did, I am innocent of it. I don’t ask to be given a prince’s title and a prince’s pension. I just want to be given the opportunity to make my own way at court.”

“An opportunity the rest of your family would deny you,” Seimei said, his expression thoughtful.

“It appears so.” Hiromasa let his shoulders slump. “Without their support, I know it’ll be difficult to keep my promise to my mother. But I’m determined to find a way forward. Mother used to say out of the darkness came light. And even if my family have been slow to welcome me, other people in the capital have been very kind.”

Seimei smiled. “You are a man who inspires kindness.” He folded his fan and tapped it on the floor of the carriage. The ox-cart turned right and headed south. “Where are you staying?”

Hiromasa named an address in the fifth district in the western half of the city.

“No, no. That won’t do.” Seimei slipped the fan inside his sleeve. “A man of your rank shouldn’t sleep in such poor quarters.”

Hiromasa laughed. “I have no complaints. Besides, I can’t afford to take a house. What you see is all I possess, save for a few changes of clothes. These are my best garments—so out of date the design is almost fashionable again, or so I was informed by one of my great-aunts yesterday.”

“A man’s clothes do not matter half as much as a man’s spirit.” Seimei tilted his head, his gaze measuring and intent. “You have a flute.”

Startled, Hiromasa rocked back on his heels. “Yes.” He reached into his sleeve and took the flute from where it lay tucked inside his waist-sash. “A man gave it to me at Suzaku Gate this morning. I don’t know why. Perhaps he felt sorry for me.”

“A man.” A small smile curved Seimei’s lips. “May I?”

“Please.” Hiromasa handed over the flute and watched as Seimei studied it with the greatest of interest. “I tried a few tunes on it. The man insisted I play it before he gave it to me. It’s a fine instrument. A beautiful sound. A work of art.”

Seimei gave it back. “Its name is Ha Futatsu.”

Hiromasa frowned, puzzled. “It has a name? It... it wasn’t stolen, was it? Is that why the man gave it to me?” An unpleasant thought occurred. “Someone’s looking for it—now I’ll be suspected as a thief!”

“It is not stolen.” Seimei said, his voice soothing. “The gift was freely given.”

“How do you know?”

“I am acquainted with the... person who gave it to you.” A brief smile, the glitter of something unreadable in Seimei’s eyes. “The person at Suzaku Gate is very discerning. Keep the flute, Hiromasa. Keep it and play it and take joy in its music. Ha Futatsu only sings for truly good men.”

Hiromasa clutched the flute, admiring it anew. “Ha Futatsu.” He stroked it, glad that such a fine instrument with such a beautiful voice had a name. “I will treasure it the way I treasure Genjou. My biwa,” he added when he saw Seimei’s look of enquiry. Hiromasa returned the flute to his sash then drew the biwa from its wrappings and set it between them on the floor. “Genjou belonged to my father and before him to my great-grandfather, the Retired Emperor Uda.”

Seimei leaned forward, his hands graceful over the instrument. The cherry-wood and chestnut were rich with the gloss of ten thousand polishings, but still the biwa wore its antiquity in the dozens of fine scratches to its surface. Hiromasa had replaced the twisted silken strings himself, tuning the instrument to a sweeter sound than that favoured by his father.

“Beautiful,” Seimei murmured, fingers caressing rather than plucking the strings. Notes fell, soft as rain, almost inaudible. When he looked up, Seimei’s eyes were shining. “This is a remarkable instrument.”

“Yes.” Hiromasa touched the rounded belly of the biwa with fondness. “My father’s cousin Fujiwara no Tonaga advised me to sell Genjou. He said the price I got would be enough to set myself up in the style to which I was accustomed.” Hiromasa grimaced at the memory. “I think he didn’t realise Genjou’s worth. Not that I would ever sell Genjou, you understand. I suppose Lord Tonaga was trying to be clever.”

Seimei snorted. “Lord Tonaga is an idiot.”

Hiromasa suppressed his laughter, gleefully shocked at the bluntness of the statement. “He holds a high position in the Ministry of War. Not as high as my father’s former position, but high enough.”

“Perhaps it passed you by in the provincial backwaters of Musashi,” Seimei said, his expression droll, “but the country has had at least half a dozen uprisings, two rebellions, and a falsely declared emperor in the past ten years. Does this strike you as an example of wise strategy and good management on the part of the Ministry of War?”

“When you put it in those terms...” Hiromasa chuckled, glad of this fresh perspective on his self-important cousin. “But I cannot be too harsh. Perhaps he is skilled at other things.”

“Lord Tonaga is skilled at drinking to excess and making a fool of himself by pawing at court ladies.”

Hiromasa hid appreciative laughter. “You seem to be well-informed.”

Seimei’s smile was gentle. “It is my business to be so.” He knocked on the floor of the ox-cart, and the vehicle swung left.

Sounds began to filter through the walls of the carriage: the rumble of wheels, the lowing of oxen, the clatter of horses’ hooves, and the hum of conversation. The smell of spiced soup mingled oddly with the scent of sweet rice cakes as hawkers moved past the ox-cart crying their wares. Dogs barked and children shrieked with laughter. Someone was playing a tune on a flute, accompanied by the pounding of a drum. Cheers and catcalls suggested that a girl was dancing along to the music.

“East market,” Seimei said. He knocked on the floor again, two sharp raps, and the ox-cart shuddered to a halt. The silent, blank-faced ox-handler pushed open the curtains and unfolded the steps. Seimei indicated that Hiromasa should rise. “We have reached our destination. Leave Genjou here.”

“East market?” Hiromasa echoed. He pushed his biwa to a corner of the carriage and fumbled with his muddy sandals. “Do you have business here?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Seimei hopped down from the ox-cart and smiled up at Hiromasa. “Please don’t concern yourself with those sandals. Ogita the silk merchant is very particular about his floors and his clientele. It wouldn’t do for you to make a bad impression.”

Puzzled, Hiromasa abandoned his sandals and followed Seimei barefoot. “Surely I will make a bad impression by wearing no shoes at all. And besides, why would I need the good opinion of a silk merchant?”

Seimei gave him a patient look. “Ogita serves only the highest and richest of the nobility. He may only be a merchant, but you should never underestimate what a merchant can do for you—and your reputation.”

Hiromasa pondered this wisdom as they entered the shop. Ogita hurried forward uttering cries of delighted welcome. It seemed that Seimei was a frequent visitor here. Hiromasa gazed around at bolts of silk of every type and colour, some plain, some embroidered, some printed with designs. He examined a piece of fabric patterned with dragonflies, only half listening to Seimei’s conversation.

“For my dear friend Lord Minamoto no Hiromasa,” Seimei was saying, “I think this dark green for a lined cloak. And perhaps this blue-grey figured silk, since he is still in mourning. Brighter colours, too—we will need those for later. A particular shade of lavender, more purple than red... yes, in glossed silk. Perfect. We’ll take it in damask, too. And black, of course, for formal court wear.”

Too stunned to protest, Hiromasa turned and stared at Seimei.

Ogita bowed, an unctuous smile splitting his face. He indicated a bolt of cloth. “If I may be so bold, this orange silk would suit Lord Hiromasa’s complexion.”

Seimei scarcely looked at it. “Marvellous. Wrap it. Wrap all of it and deliver it to my estate.”

Hiromasa managed a strangled squeak. “What are you doing?”

“Shopping.” Seimei seemed pleased by the prospect. “You will need court hats and caps. Boots. Shoes. Undergarments. Sashes. Fans. Ogita, my thanks for your help! Hurry, Hiromasa. We have much to do.”

“But...!” Hiromasa trailed after him, shocked and embarrassed by the promise of such extravagance. “You’re too kind to this humble person. Much too kind. Please, Lord Seimei, you must know I can’t possibly repay you!”

Seimei paused, gave him a gleaming look. “Not now, perhaps. Later you will find a way.”

Hiromasa blinked, uncertain, wondering what that could possibly mean.

“Shoes!” shouted Seimei as he crossed the busy street. “Hurry, Lord Hiromasa—you need shoes!”

Shoving aside the moment of disquiet, Hiromasa ran after Seimei.

* * *


Seimei’s estate lay in the north-east of the city, perched on the very edge of civilisation. The only view visible above the high walls was that of the mountains, distant smudges glimpsed now and then through a screen of flowering trees and shrubs. Hiromasa wandered through the garden with interest, finding it a charming tangle, the plants allowed to grow at whim. It made a pleasing contrast to Seimei’s own immaculate grooming, and Hiromasa was reminded of his mother’s garden in Musashi. She had enjoyed tending her flowers, but they grew within certain limits, constrained by appropriate colour palate and season. He preferred the unrestrained wildness of Seimei’s garden, with its unfashionable shape and riots of colour and scent.

The house, like the garden, was of unusual shape. Rather than a long hall with enclosing wings on either side, the house ran in a zigzag, with Seimei’s study overlooking the garden and the rest of the halls and rooms tucked away, joined by galleries and bridgeways and arranged around smaller, though no less informal, gardens.

It seemed to be a residence of some antiquity. Hiromasa admired the elaborate interlock of the beams and the roof of blue-glazed tiles. Blinds of green bamboo covered the entrances. Bronze lamps swayed in a gentle breeze. Inside, embroidered standing curtains and painted folding screens hinted at wealth and taste.

A woman approached them along a gallery. Dressed in the most exquisite layered robes and with her hair trailing along the floor, she was a vision of beauty. The lady smiled at him, not bothering to hide her features behind a fan. Dazzled, Hiromasa hesitated, glancing at Seimei. Surely this lady was a wife or concubine? But Seimei passed her with a mere nod, leaving Hiromasa stunned.

He bowed to the woman, then hurried after Seimei. “That lady...”

“A servant,” Seimei said.

Another woman, equally as beautiful, stood beside a door. She smiled as they drew closer, bowed and murmured a few words of welcome, then opened the door. “Lord Hiromasa’s room, as requested.”

“She—My...?” Hiromasa didn’t know where to look first. “This lady...?”

“She is also a servant.” Seimei indicated the open door. “Please step inside and tell me if my humble abode meets with your approval.”

Somewhat bewildered, Hiromasa entered the guest room and looked around in wonder. Spacious and elegantly appointed, it contained everything a nobleman might wish to have at his fingertips—a writing desk, cabinets, a clothes chest, a curtained dais with a sleeping mat laid out within, a table set with refreshments, shelves holding a selection of books and decorative objects.

The lady glided over to the table, where she poured a cup of wine and offered it to him. “Drink, Lord Hiromasa?”

“Ah,” said Hiromasa, his head spinning. He took the cup. “Thank you, Miss...”

“Her name is Willow,” Seimei said, sounding a little amused. “The other lady you saw is Lilac. Doubtless you’ll encounter Lily, Safflower, and Camellia in due time. They will certainly make themselves known to you. They’re very curious.”

Hiromasa clutched the wine-cup. He darted a glance at Willow then back at Seimei. There was no polite way to word this. “Are they—do they... do they all belong to you?”

Seimei looked affronted. “Goodness me, no. They belong to themselves and are quite at liberty to come and go as they please. They only serve me because I asked them nicely. I think they were bored before. They’re really quite sociable, and no one had thought to ask what they wanted to do. So I asked, and here they are.”

“I see,” said Hiromasa, though he didn’t understand Seimei’s explanation in the slightest. Perhaps he was more countrified than he realised. He took a sip of wine and tried to make sense of it all. Maybe the ladies were daughters of Seimei’s retainers, women of good breeding but too lowly to attract the attentions of high-ranking gentlemen. Serving in this household was no doubt preferable to spending the rest of their lives in some miserable backwater.

“I would be pleased if you would consent to staying here with me for a short while,” said Seimei. “Until you have gained recognition at court, please consider my house your home. You are free to leave at any time, should you wish to accept a better offer.”

“A better offer?” Hiromasa laughed before he could stop himself. He couldn’t imagine there was another house in the capital that could compare to this one. Many of his relatives had bigger estates, grander houses, countless servants and retainers, more ostentatious displays of wealth, but none of them had the same charm and oddness of Seimei’s house.

“It’s agreed, then.” A pleased smile curved Seimei’s mouth. “I’ll leave you to get settled. Please make yourself at home. Anything you need, ask Willow.” He bowed and withdrew, the door sliding shut behind him.

Hiromasa finished his wine and returned the cup to the table. Self-conscious and aware of Willow watching his every movement, he wandered around the room, examining the writing desk, opening the drawers and poking at the brushes, the ink sticks, the assortment of paper. He lifted the lid of the clothes chest and sneezed at the scent of camphor-wood. The chest was empty, so he moved on, picking up a book from the shelves and carrying it over to the windows. He peered through the blinds at a small garden filled with flowers and admired a miniature waterfall tumbling down an artistically shaped pile of rocks.

He sighed, a breath of amazement at his good fortune.

Willow took the book from his hands and smiled up at him, her dark eyes dancing. “Lord Hiromasa,” she said, and lifted the sleeve of his hunting costume. She pointed at the ragged cuff and all the places where the fabric had worn thin, and she giggled at the patch he’d sewn at the elbow.

Embarrassed, he pulled his arm free. Willow laughed and grabbed at his lacquered hat. Dust and grime stained her pale skin, and he blushed at how unkempt he must look. She put her hand into the fine mesh of his hat, poking her fingers through a rent in the back. Hiromasa groaned. Unkempt was not a strong enough word. No, he was a disgrace, a mess, worse than a mountain hermit! It was a wonder Seimei had allowed him to step over the threshold.

“Bath,” said Willow, dimpling at him. She threw his hat aside and took his hands. “Come with me. Wash. Be clean.”

Hiromasa didn’t hesitate. He followed Willow along the corridor and into the bathing room, grateful when she made a tactful exit and allowed him to undress behind the privacy of a screen. She returned to pour basins of hot water into a wooden tub, scented the bath with rose petals, hung a net bag of soap beans nearby, then left him alone again.

He clambered into the bath and sank down, enjoying the languid heat. For a moment he remained still, just resting, and then he took down his hair and ducked his head beneath the water. Hiromasa scrubbed at his hair, washing out the dirt of the road, and wished he could scour away all traces of his father’s exile as easily.

The water clouded, turned foamy with the soap. Willow came back into the room carrying a basin of warm water. Hiromasa rinsed his hair and settled against the side of the tub, letting his thoughts spiral and fade with the steam. Willow moved around in the background, picking up his clothes, tidying things away, humming a tune as she worked. Her voice was light, pleasant, and Hiromasa relaxed.

He marvelled again at the stroke of luck that had placed him in Seimei’s path. The directions must have been auspicious for him today. First the gift of the flute from the man at Suzaku Gate, then Seimei’s generous offer of clothes and a place to stay. His mother had told him he would encounter kindness from the good people of the capital, but until today he hadn’t believed her words. Until today, his own family members had shunned and reviled him.

Gloom tainted Hiromasa’s mood. He stirred, his arms breaking the surface of the water. Rose petals floated, and he plucked them one by one, folding them in his palm and then opening his fingers, letting the petals drift free. The memory of his unwelcome reception at his cousin’s house dug like a thorn into his flesh. Lord Tonaga hadn’t even listened to Hiromasa’s speech before rejecting him. Instead he’d called for his biggest, ugliest retainers to escort Hiromasa to the gate.

“Nobody wants you,” Tonaga had called after him. “Nobody wants to remember your father. Go back to your miserable province and bury yourself there.”

Hiromasa splashed in the tub, trying to dispel the recollections. Pessimism was not a natural state for him, and he tried to cheer himself with happier thoughts. So what if his family disliked him—he had made a new friend instead, someone interesting and unique! But, muttered the pessimism, what if Seimei is tricking you? What if Seimei wants something? Hiromasa wondered what he had that Seimei could possibly want. It wasn’t as if he were some helpless blushing maiden. Well, blustered the pessimism, perhaps Seimei is a fox. You didn’t think of that, did you?

The water sloshed as Hiromasa sat upright. Seimei did look like a fox. Maybe this was a trick after all. Concerned, he pinched his bare arm enough to leave a red imprint on his skin, hoping to break the illusion. Nothing happened, but his arm hurt. Then he snapped his head from side to side very fast, trying to catch a glimpse of reality at the edges of his vision. His wet hair slapped his face but he saw nothing unusual, except for Willow’s bewildered expression.

If this was an illusion, it was remarkably real. Not that Hiromasa had experienced fox magic or an illusory world before, but he thought he was sensible enough to tell the difference between real and not-real.

Willow had obviously decided that his actions indicated the end of his bath, for now she approached the tub holding open a large drying-sheet. Hiromasa dawdled, a little embarrassed about stepping out naked in front of an attractive woman, but she smiled in a cheerful, non-threatening way and appeared oblivious to his nudity. While he dried himself, she wrapped another cloth around his hair. She folded aside the screen—his old clothes had gone, he noticed—to reveal new garments in several shades of soft grey and dark purple twill. Willow helped him to dress, tied up his wet hair, then settled a cap upon his head.

Clean and presentable at last, Hiromasa returned to the guest room and found Genjou laid across the writing desk. He plucked a few chords from the biwa then looked around for Ha Futatsu. The flute sat on the table beside the wine-jar and the empty cup. Hiromasa tucked the flute into his sleeve and went exploring.

He found more guest rooms, though none as fine as the one he occupied. He discovered the kitchen and the outhouse and the stables. He wandered through a small orchard until he came to a pond stocked with all kinds of fish, including some he was certain had no business living in a freshwater pool. Beyond lay a paddock where pure white oxen grazed. Returning to the house by another path, he came across a small pavilion beside an ornamental lake filled with lotus flowers.

Hiromasa entered the house through a different door and stopped short when he saw four women surrounded by masses of silk and damask and linen. All four were sewing, but they broke off from their task and their conversation to stare at him.

He recognised one of the ladies. “Miss Lilac,” he said, and bowed, heart thumping, face aflame. “Forgive the intrusion. I’m very sorry. I seem to be a bit lost.”

One of the women squealed and jumped up. Another followed, and they rushed over to him, pulling Hiromasa into the room. The third lady was more reserved, but she smiled and nodded, and Lilac made the introductions. His head spun as he looked from one lovely face to the next—Camellia, Lily, Safflower. He had never seen so many beautiful women in one household, and thought dazedly that Seimei’s companions must surely rival the Emperor’s ladies.

They bade him sit with them, holding up bolts of cloth and demonstrating the cut and style of the clothes they were making. Clothes for him, Hiromasa realised, recognising the fabric as that bought by Seimei earlier today. He thanked the women several times, inspiring giggles and flirtatious looks. None of them attempted to hide their faces from him. Indeed, they even sat close and touched him as if measuring the breadth of his shoulders or the length of his arms.

They talked for a while. Some of their speech was peculiar, a jumble of sounds rather than words. Hiromasa decided his earlier guess was right—the ladies were provincials like him, but without the courtly gloss his parents had instilled into him. Their strange tongue must be the language used by commoners.

Evening had advanced by the time he took his leave. The women’s flattering interest had delighted Hiromasa, and he wandered through the rest of the house with a smile on his face and a buoyant sense of belonging and peace.

He found Seimei in the study, a mess of books and papers surrounding him. Three ink stones lined up neatly, each one bearing a different colour. Brushes lay scattered, ink blots trailing, as Seimei wrestled with a peculiar-looking device that seemed to consist of several long rulers jointed together at odd angles. He gave up on it and set the device down when Hiromasa entered the room.

“Ah, Hiromasa. I was expecting you this past hour or so. I take it you found more congenial company.”

“I’m sorry to keep you waiting. Do forgive me.” Hiromasa went forwards, anxious to attend on his host. He beamed. “Your ladies are so very charming.”

Seimei’s lips twitched into a smile and he made an effort to tidy away his papers. “They are not my ladies, but thank you all the same. I try to take care of them to the best of my poor abilities.”

It was a strange thing to say. Hiromasa pondered on it while he seated himself, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever it was that Seimei was working on. “Your home is beautiful, too. And your estate is magnificent. I hadn’t realised its size. It seems so much bigger inside than it looks from the outside.”

“An effect of good planning.” Seimei smiled again and retrieved a brush from its place tucked behind his ear.

“Surely you are a man much envied by others!”

The smile faded. “No.” Seimei dropped his gaze then looked out at the garden, at the nodding flowers furling in on themselves as night approached. “I am not a man to be envied. Which is fortunate, for envy is a sin and too much envy can cause all kinds of problems. But we need not speak of that.” He smiled a third time, softer than before.

Hiromasa swallowed his curiosity. “Very well.” His thoughts raced. He’d only been trying to make polite conversation and instead he’d hit upon something personal. His host was obviously nursing a deep wound over some past incident. How intriguing!

“Ah,” said Seimei, turning back with a pleasant expression as a footfall sounded behind them, “here is the evening rice. Thank you, Camellia.”

Adding his own thanks, Hiromasa waited until the lady had distributed bowls of rice, grilled fish, and steamed vegetables. A wine-jar stood nearby—where had that come from? Hiromasa wondered—and he poured two cups, handing one to Seimei. Camellia withdrew from the room. They ate, Seimei scarcely looking at his meal while Hiromasa enjoyed every mouthful.

After he’d eaten, Hiromasa resumed their conversation. “I never asked what it was you did at court.”

Seimei smiled again as he stirred through the rice in search of a piece of pickled ginger. “I am a yin yang master.”

A frisson of excitement stroked Hiromasa’s spine, and he sat bolt upright. “You tell fortunes?”

“Amongst other things.” Seimei waved his chopsticks in a lazy gesture. “Many other things.”

“I don’t suppose...” Hiromasa stopped himself from asking the question and instead gave a wistful sigh and shook his head. “No. I must not interrupt your work.”

“It’s quite all right.” Seimei shot him an indulgent look. “Too much palace work makes me excessively tedious, both to myself and company. I would be happy to do a reading for you.” He finished his food, took a final swig of wine, and leaned back, balancing just enough to prevent himself from falling flat, as he rooted around in an open set of drawers in a cherry-wood cabinet.

“The I Ching,” he said, bundling yarrow stalks into one hand, “is remarkably accurate, or at least when I cast it.” Seimei wrinkled his nose. “That probably sounds arrogant, but it is also true.”

“I would prefer to have an accurate reading than one full of kind intentions.” Hiromasa brought his wine-cup and sat a little closer. “I am not afraid of what the future might hold for me. The only thing I fear is that I might not be able to meet its demands.”

Seimei raised perfectly arched eyebrows. “So you hope for some direction to assist you in your future? Well: let us see what the I Ching suggests.”

Hiromasa watched as Seimei divided the stalks, counted them out, cast some aside, each action repeated over and over until the small bundles represented the lines of the hexagram. Taking up a discarded brush, Seimei dipped it in the nearest ink stone and drew a hexagram on the edge of a sheet of paper containing complex mathematical formulae. The original colour on the brush was black; the ink it had been dipped in was red, so the shape emerged in two colours, the inks bleeding into each other.

“It’s a transforming hexagram,” Seimei said, indicating the line on which the change occurred. He drew out a second hexagram then hung over the paper, a thoughtful expression on his face. A moment later he sat back and tapped a finger at the first hexagram. “Seventeen: Following. All things follow a natural cycle and you are no exception. As day follows night and spring follows winter, it is time for you to realise your potential. Find a guide, someone to inspire you, and follow them. Your desires have been hidden for too long. Find the one who can help you realise them.”

Seimei’s voice was brisk, impersonal, as he drew his finger across the paper to the transforming hexagram. “Three: Sprouting,” he continued. “Time for you to release the energy you’ve been nurturing and break the earth, show yourself to the world. Gather around you those best suited to give you assistance. Seek an alliance, a partnership, and you will grow and flourish.”

A slight pause followed, and then Seimei said, “Well, now. This is a very satisfactory reading.”

Astonished, Hiromasa stared at the two hexagrams. A kindling of doubt crept into his mind, and he glanced up. “You’re not just saying this, are you?”

Seimei looked offended. “I am never wrong.” He paused again, then admitted, “Although sometimes I am misguided. But never maliciously.”

“If I have been the cause of your misdirection, I apologise.”

“Nonsense.” A smile broke Seimei’s sombre countenance. “Besides, I know this reading is right. I’m glad the I Ching bears out my opinion of you.”

Silence, tiny and almost awkward, slipped between them. Seimei’s expression turned blank, as if he was afraid he’d said too much.

Hiromasa coughed into his sleeve and looked around for the wine-jar. He poured them each a drink, then asked, very carefully, “What do you want from me?”

Seimei’s smile flashed like quicksilver. “Nothing, Hiromasa. That is, nothing more than to hear you play Ha Futatsu.”

“That’s all?” Hiromasa eyed him, half believing, half mistrusting. “You give me so much in return for so little?”

“That’s all.” Seimei’s smile turned serious. “Please do not underestimate the value of good music. It would be wrong to put a price on such things, but...”

“I see.” Hiromasa nodded. Genjou was worth more to him than almost anything else in his life; perhaps Seimei felt the same about hearing the sound of Ha Futatsu. He fumbled in his sleeve and took out the flute. Closing his eyes, he set it to his lips and played.

A melody emerged—not the old-fashioned court tune he’d intended to play, but something haunting and beautiful, a piece that rose and fell like waves at sea. Hiromasa let himself follow the music, allowing the tune to unfold as if it came from the flute rather than from the depths of his memory. He built variations into the melody but came back to the central theme time and again, locked in the flow of sound until the final note ended—and when it did end, he felt it like a shock and set the flute in his lap, startled and blinking around at the darkness, at the flames dancing in the cressets.

Seimei had stretched out on his side, his face covered by his fan as he listened. Now he moved, shook off the rapture of the music, and folded the fan. He sighed. “It is a truly marvellous flute.”

“Yes.” The word sounded empty. Hiromasa stared at Ha Futatsu, stunned by its perfection of tone and warmth of sound. It was an instrument made for emperors, not for mere men, and he felt unworthy of it.

“Don’t,” said Seimei, his voice soft. As if he could read Hiromasa’s mind, he continued, “You are worthy of Ha Futatsu. The person at Suzaku Gate wouldn’t have given such a treasure away to just anyone.”

Hiromasa closed his hand around the flute, cradling it, protecting it. “Thank you.”

Seimei’s eyes gleamed. “Take it to court tomorrow. Carry it with you always.”

“Court?”

“Yes.” Seimei rose, his heavy silk sleeves falling back to brush against the floor. He smiled, wistful but happy. “Goodnight, Hiromasa.”

* * *


Hiromasa fell asleep late and woke early, his dreams full of Ha Futatsu’s song. He lay in bed and stared at the shifting pattern of the embroidered curtains, his head fuzzy with tiredness. He’d stayed awake long after the candles had snuffed themselves out, aware of the creak of the house settling into night around him, aware of the scent of cinnamon and sweet pine and cloves. He’d rolled from one side to the other, restless rather than uncomfortable, conscious that he was waiting for his host to slide open the door and come to him.

The thought made Hiromasa shiver with mingled fear and excitement. Despite Seimei’s assurance that he wanted nothing more from him than music, Hiromasa was not such an innocent that he believed it. Sex was the most obvious currency in these situations. It wasn’t as though Hiromasa hadn’t done it before, though his previous experiences had been clumsy and lacking in elegance, due more to youthful exuberance than any courtly notions of good taste. Seimei was attractive, refined, and moved with grace. It would surely be a pleasure to make love with him, but Hiromasa feared exposing himself as boorish and provincial.

But his fears were groundless and his curiosity left unsatisfied, as the door to his room remained shut and Seimei never came. Hiromasa told himself he wasn’t disappointed. He hummed over the tune he’d played last night, then pushed aside the quilts of his robes and went over to the writing desk to jot down the notation. He played the melody on Genjou, attempting to match the biwa’s sound to the flute, then decided to write a counter-melody.

Busy with his work, he didn’t notice Willow enter his room until she placed the morning rice in front of him on the desk. He yelped and started backwards, and she giggled.

“Good morning!” She pushed the food closer. “Please eat!”

Setting aside the music, Hiromasa shovelled the flavoured rice gruel into his mouth. Willow poured him a cup of watered wine then went over to the clothes chest. He turned to watch her, and almost choked when she lifted the lid to reveal piles of neatly folded clothes. Shaking out a set of under-robes, she laid them over a folding screen, then left the room. She returned bearing formal black court wear with two layers of lilac and grey.

“Thank you.” Hiromasa found his voice. “Thank you—all of you—for working so hard. Your kindness is extraordinary. I am in your debt.”

Willow gave a gentle peal of laughter. “We like you.”

He finished his breakfast and stood while she fussed around him, helping him on with the court robes and making sure every fold fell just so. She presented him with a tailed lacquered cap and watched while he set it on his head, then she nodded in satisfaction. “Ready,” she said, and slid open the door.

“Ah—one moment...” Remembering Seimei’s words last night, Hiromasa picked up Ha Futatsu and tucked the flute into the front of his court cloak. “Now I’m ready.”

Willow led him into the reception hall where Seimei waited, dressed in formal court clothes and idly waving a crimson and gold patterned fan. He looked imposing and distant, and Hiromasa blushed at having entertained such pleasurable, wicked thoughts about his host.

“Today you should introduce yourself to your father’s friends,” Seimei said as they climbed into the ox-cart. “Since your family has been spectacularly unhelpful, you may as well apply to friends. Your father was a popular man, I believe, at least until his exile. Popular men make as many enemies as they do friends, but some of those enemies may turn out to have mellowed in the intervening years.”

Hiromasa swayed on a cushion as the ox-cart rumbled out of the estate and onto Nishi no Toin Avenue. “I recall the names of those who corresponded with Father while he was in exile. Now I have the appropriate clothes to enter the palace,” he paused and gave Seimei a grateful look, “I will visit them.”

“Good.” Seimei tapped his fan on the floor of the carriage, and the ox-cart swung right to begin its approach to the imperial complex. They sat in companionable silence for a while, the ruts in the road becoming less noticeable the nearer they drew to the palace. The cart stopped, and the bovine-faced driver unfolded the steps for his passengers. Hiromasa held onto his cap as he jumped down, the breeze catching at the stiff folds of his formal robes and puffing out the layers of his silks.

Seimei emerged, thanked the driver, and greeted the two guards on duty at the Taiken Gate. He put a hand on Hiromasa’s arm in a familiar gesture and smiled brilliantly as they walked past the soldiers. The guards returned the smile but didn’t challenge Hiromasa.

“Next time you come, you will have the authority to pass into the outer palace without my assistance,” Seimei said. “For today, you may wander at will and accustom yourself to the layout of this place. None of the guards will stop you.”

“You must be well respected,” Hiromasa said, full of admiration.

Seimei touched his fan to his lips, his smile brief. “Something like that.”

They moved on, Hiromasa trying to commit to memory everything Seimei said about every building they passed and every person they saw up close or from a distance. Hiromasa smiled and bowed at everyone indiscriminately until Seimei told him to stop.

“Most of the courtiers you see here are beneath you, socially speaking. They hold sixth rank or below.”

“I don’t know what rank I hold,” Hiromasa said. “Am I even entitled to one, considering Father’s exile?”

Seimei made a thoughtful sound. “As the son of an imperial prince, you should be junior lower fourth rank at the very least. As the son of a disgraced imperial prince... well, that is something we need to discover. To be on the safe side, acknowledge the nobles of sixth rank or less but don’t bow too deeply. Better to be thought of as arrogant than to be considered overly humble. No one believes in humility, even when it’s genuine.”

“Right.” Hiromasa squared his shoulders. “I can do that.”

“One more thing.” Seimei stopped and swung around to face him. “When you encounter any of your family, if they ask about your clothes, lie to them.”

“But...”

Seimei’s eyes blazed. “Lie. Tell them you visited the Archives and discovered an inheritance. Tell them you have wealth.”

“Telling lies is a sin,” Hiromasa protested.

“You are not the sinful one.” The fan snapped shut as if in emphasis. “Lie to them. Only by giving the illusion of wealth will you advance yourself. This is the truth of life at court.”

Hiromasa pondered this advice. “You don’t lie.”

Seimei gave him a sad smile. “Ah, but I do.”

The response silenced Hiromasa, who privately decided that Seimei was lying about lying, which surely meant that he was telling the truth or some such thing. The thought confused him, and he slipped his hands beneath his cloak and brushed his fingers against the flute, drawing strength from it.

Seimei strolled on ahead, the white gravel of the courtyard crunching beneath his suede boots. He gestured at a long hall with a tower and two water-clocks on the veranda. The building appeared to be in a state of decay, its wooden beams weathered and its green roof-tiles cracked. “The Bureau of Divination,” Seimei said. “I need to collect a few things from my colleagues, but first I will accompany you as far as the Office of the Left Palace Guards. They will know where you may find your father’s old friends.”

Hiromasa looked back at the Bureau of Divination as they turned a corner and headed north. “Seimei, I’ve been thinking about the I Ching last night and what it revealed...”

“Oh?”

“I was wondering—not that I have any ability in that direction, I’m sure, but perhaps... I mean...” Hiromasa winced at his incoherence and tried again. “That is to say—Seimei, would you like an apprentice?”

Seimei gave him a startled look. “You? Oh, Hiromasa.” He chuckled, dipped his head, and hid the rest of his amusement behind his fan.

“Is that a no?”

“It is.” Seimei peeped over the fan at him, eyes dancing. “Believe me, I’m flattered you should even consider it, but it would be a shameful waste of your talents. No, my lord Hiromasa, you are destined for greater things.”

Hiromasa beamed. “I am?”

Seimei threw him a dazzling look. “Trust me. I have the utmost faith in your abilities.”

They turned east. Ahead of them, several courtiers stood talking on the steps of a nearby building. A man dressed in splendid brocades hurried out of the building, snapping something at the others, who moved away with audible mutters and black looks.

“Ah, here comes your cousin.” Seimei spun on his heel so fast that Hiromasa almost bumped into him. Seimei leaned close, his scent of cinnamon, sweet pine, and cloves soft and subtle and intoxicating. “I will take my leave of you now. The Office of the Left Guards is directly ahead, the large building close by the walls. I know you must have speech with Lord Tonaga, but for your sake don’t tell him any more than he needs to know.”

With that, Seimei flipped open his fan and sailed off, the tails of his lacquered cap fluttering and the black silk of his court cloak rippling with the sheen of a dark iridescent blue. Hiromasa gazed after him, wondering when they’d meet again that day and how he was going to get back to the estate. As he considered chasing after Seimei to demand answers to these questions, Lord Tonaga stamped past him. A heartbeat later, Tonaga stopped, stood completely still, then turned around to stare at Hiromasa.

“It’s you,” Tonaga said, features slack with astonishment. His gaze darted over Hiromasa like fishes flitting between shadows in a pool, and still he seemed unable to believe the change between the man he’d seen only a few days ago and the well-dressed young courtier who stood before him now. “It is you, isn’t it, Cousin Hiromasa?”

Hiromasa bowed, according Tonaga more respect than he probably deserved. “It’s me, cousin.”

“How did you get in here?” Tonaga seemed uninterested in the reply, more concerned with staring in the direction Seimei had taken. A frown creased his heavy brows. “Was that Abe no Seimei?”

“Yes.” Hiromasa kept his response as brief as possible.

“You shouldn’t trust that man.” Tonaga pursed his lips and brushed an imaginary fleck of dirt from his expensive maroon and tan robes. “Lord Seimei is quite the eccentric. He labours under the mistaken belief that he runs the Bureau of Divination, when in fact he is only a junior member. He is so proud he only turns up at meetings when it suits him, can you imagine!” Tonaga uttered a squawking laugh. “Just because he holds the favour of members of the imperial family, he thinks he can do as he pleases.”

“Really?” Hiromasa turned his full attention on his cousin, eager to learn more about Seimei.

Tonaga gave a disdainful sniff. “Oh, yes. It’s said that he casts spells on women to make them do his bidding. It’s all dreadfully underhand. Why he needs magic to lure women is quite beyond me. He’s disgustingly wealthy and doesn’t even have the decency to share it by bribing officials in order to advance himself at court. I suppose he thinks he doesn’t need our help, but I tell you, cousin, the day will come—and soon—that he will beg for our favour.”

“Really?” Hiromasa asked again in a different tone of voice, disturbed by the bitterness and anger contorting his cousin’s features.

“Of course.” Tonaga summoned a twisted smile. “Abe no Seimei might think he’s above the likes of me, but he’s lower than the meanest commoner toiling in the fields. He’s the favourite of Former Emperor Yozei, and someone who deals with that much pollution must be akin to a walking cesspit.”

Hiromasa gaped, too astonished by Tonaga’s venom to comment on it. He struggled to recall what he knew of Former Emperor Yozei, but remembered only rumours about insanity and a scandal that had led to Yozei’s removal from the throne. Unable to think of anything better to say, Hiromasa murmured, “Seimei is a good man.”

“You shouldn’t associate with him.” Tonaga swept him with another critical look, gaze rounding on the patterned silk of Hiromasa’s sleeves. “Anyway, it seems you’ve come into some wealth since we last met. Did you sell that old biwa as I suggested?”

Hiromasa held his tongue on the truth and told the lie that Seimei had prepared for him. “I visited the Archives yesterday and discovered I had a small estate inherited from my mother’s family. It’s not much, but it will keep me clothed in an appropriate manner and enable me to purchase gifts of proper suitability to give to my betters.”

At this, Tonaga seemed to shake off his bad temper, his demeanour changing so rapidly that Hiromasa felt dizzy just to see it. His expression bright with interest, Tonaga gestured at Hiromasa’s robes. “Your new garments are very fine, cousin. That silk...”

“Korean,” Hiromasa said. “From Ogita.”

“Ogita!” Tonaga’s eyes widened. “I wonder you have any funds left after buying from that scoundrel! Korean silk, you said? That sly dog, he assured me he had no new stock... But never mind.” Tonaga laid a friendly arm around Hiromasa’s shoulders and began walking with him towards the Office of the Left Guards. “You’ve borrowed against the estate? A good plan. What is it worth?”

Hiromasa named a figure at random and thought he’d gone too far when Tonaga’s arm stiffened. “So much!” Tonaga whispered, then he coughed. “Hiromasa—you are family. I spoke hastily and without thought when you called on me the other day. I’ve been thinking and I insist you come to live with me.”

His transparency was amusing, but Hiromasa managed to suppress a smile. “Thank you for the kind offer, but I already have a place to stay.”

Tonaga gave a disdainful sniff. “You can’t possibly be referring to that guesthouse in the west city! Why, it’s no more than a hovel. I absolutely must insist, cousin—you must stay with me.”

“Thank you again,” said Hiromasa, “but I’m staying with Lord Seimei.”

“What?” The word came out as a squeak. Tonaga halted, staring at him.

“Lord Seimei invited me to—”

“No.” The shock wore off, and Tonaga waved his hands in agitation. “No, Hiromasa. I forbid it. I am a Major Controller in the Ministry of War and thus the highest ranking member of our family, the closest thing you have to a father figure, and I utterly forbid you from even contemplating such an action! Abe no Seimei is strange and perverse.”

“He is a kind and polite gentleman,” Hiromasa said, annoyed by his cousin’s reaction.

“He speaks to demons!”

Hiromasa sighed. “Possibly. But then, he is a yin yang master, and I imagine speaking to demons is only a small part of what he does.”

“Cousin, you’re so naive.” Tonaga clutched his sleeves and drew back. “Seimei is not even human!”

Startled, Hiromasa rocked on his heels. “What?”

Tonaga looked around and leaned close. “It’s said that his mother was a fox.”

Anxiety jolted Hiromasa, curdled in his stomach. Hadn’t he considered that same possibility already? He forced out a carefree laugh. “I don’t believe it.”

“It’s true!” Tonaga glared, defying him to disbelieve his words. “Why else would he spend time with Former Emperor Yozei? A fox is a low animal, a devious animal. It burrows in the ground and loves filth of all kinds. It seeks out pollution. I tell you, cousin, Abe no Seimei is a fox, a dirty fox that gains power from association with a fallen emperor!”

* * *


March 2016

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