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The Curse of Kuwana


Hiromasa woke to a strange, prickling silence.

He sat up, drawing a hand across his nape. Grimacing at the wet slide of sweat on his skin and in his hair, he unstuck the thin silk under-robe from his back. He’d kicked aside the covering layers of his summer robes while he’d slept, yet he wasn’t cold. It was impossible to feel the slightest chill in this heat, the air around him dragging slow and heavy.

He’d fallen asleep to the shrilling of cicadas. Now their song was a memory blending into the stillness, but it was stillness alive with potential, the moment of quiet before a storm. Hiromasa sighed, then listened for Seimei’s soft breathing. He heard nothing. Reaching out, he groped across the sleeping mat and the scrubbed floorboards until he touched a warm, discarded pile of robes.

“Seimei?” Hiromasa pitched his voice low, not wanting to wake his friend. He scrabbled across the floor, fumbling in the darkness, and found Seimei’s bedroll empty. Puzzled, for surely he’d have heard if Seimei had left the room, Hiromasa knelt and turned his head this way and that, blinking through the intense black.

Their room was in one of the interior courtyards of the monastery attached to the Tado shrine. The sole window was shuttered and latched, and not even a gleam of light crept in beneath the door. The candle had burned out long before they’d slept, during a discussion about travel arrangements. Or rather, during a time when Hiromasa had been talking about travel arrangements and Seimei had lain in silence, nursing his right arm out of habit rather than necessity.

Through some magic Hiromasa didn’t understand, the grievous, slow-poison injury inflicted upon Seimei by the shadow fox of Yatsuhashi had been cured by Seimei’s grandfather when they’d stopped at Sunomata. The healing process had been painful, draining Seimei of his strength, and their return to the capital had been slow. Hiromasa wanted Seimei to rest properly, and the monastery on Mount Tado seemed to offer the appropriate peace and quiet. There were few guests here at this time of year, and besides, hardly anyone was out travelling while the heat was so severe. It was the fifth month, the month of the rains, but Hiromasa hadn’t seen a single cloud blotting the sky since they’d left Sunomata. Not even here on the slopes of Mount Tado did a breeze blow.

All at once the darkened room seemed stifling, and Hiromasa half rose to his feet in a sudden panic. “Seimei!”

Ahead, the door creaked and swung open. The faintest sliver of moonlight cut the night, and Hiromasa saw him then—Seimei, standing on the veranda wearing the thinnest of summer robes, his body shadowed through the sheer silk, his hair loosening from its topknot.

Hiromasa paused to drag on his top-robe, fumbling with its ties in the darkness, then pulled on his boots. As he headed for the door, he caught up his black court cloak. Seimei would never consider such a thing as modesty, but Hiromasa had no desire for his friend to expose himself to the innocent sight of any monks who might be wandering the grounds. Of course, any monks abroad in the middle of the night were probably not so innocent, but Hiromasa didn’t want to think about that. Seimei would either offend or entice, as was his habit, and Hiromasa wanted to avoid both outcomes.

By the time he made it out onto the veranda, Seimei had stepped onto the pale gravel of the courtyard. Hiromasa heard the soft crunch of shifting stones beneath Seimei’s bare feet. With a wince of sympathy, Hiromasa wondered if he should go back into the room and retrieve Seimei’s boots. He wavered, then decided modesty was more important than sore feet.

Hiromasa hurried across the courtyard, the cloak outstretched. He twitched his hands, preparing to swirl the heavy black silk around Seimei, when he heard it.

The sound carried across the courtyard—a soft but distinct crack like the stretching of old wood; a creaking and snapping. Hiromasa halted. Seimei stood motionless, head cocked. The sounds continued, the snapping noise limbering into notes plucked from a kin, deep then high, all off-key. A fluttering of chords, followed by a lone note played over and over, still off-key. Without thinking, Hiromasa hummed the correct note and heard the sound modulate up half a tone to match him.

Seimei turned and looked at Hiromasa, his features sharp in the fretful moonlight. His eyes glinted with awareness. Hiromasa gave a small sigh, relieved that Seimei was awake rather than sleepwalking as he’d done the first night on the road away from Sunomata. “Seimei,” Hiromasa said, coaxing, then took a step closer and swung the cloak around Seimei’s shoulders.

Notes fell through the night air, clear and bold. Hiromasa recognised a tuning melody resolve itself from the noise; a simple piece without flourishes. The music came together, the sound echoing around the monastery.

Seimei pulled the cloak tighter and danced a few steps in time to the music. The melody changed, the notes perfect now, the musician playing with confidence. The only discord came from muffled shouts and slamming doors as monks and guests emerged from their rooms to investigate the disturbance.

A cluster of novices hurried into the courtyard, wide-eyed and huddled around a single candle. Someone complained about the lateness of the hour; someone else remarked on the sticky heat. Hiromasa turned to see an old monk shuffling in his direction. When he looked back, Seimei had wandered off, black cloak trailing, towards the far side of the courtyard. Puzzled, for he couldn’t recall anything of interest in that part of the monastery, Hiromasa absently returned the old monk’s greeting before hurrying in pursuit of Seimei.

The music grew louder. It seemed to have its origin in a narrow, two-storey building that served as a storeroom. No lights shone at the empty windows and the door was closed. A small crowd gathered outside, and no one seemed concerned by Seimei’s casual mode of dress. Indeed, the murmurs and whispers focused on one topic only: the music.

Seimei stood in front of the storeroom, listening. At length he stepped forward and pushed open the door. After the slightest hesitation, the music continued—muted now, the tuning melody modulating into something new.

The door swung wide. Darkness spilled from within, and the crowd drew back as if fearing contamination. Hiromasa brushed past the novices to take up position behind Seimei’s shoulder, close enough to offer protection but far enough back to avoid being hit by a flying monster. He peered inside the storeroom, steeling himself to witness something horrible, but saw nothing. Curious, he murmured, “Seimei, what is it? What’s in there?”

“It’s the haunted kin.” The old monk who’d greeted him earlier spoke again.

Hiromasa glanced at the monk. “Haunted? You mean this has happened before?” He tried to keep the relief from his voice. An instrument that played by itself in the dead of night was startling, of course, but it held no danger. It didn’t lure people into fatal fantasies of the mind like a dream demon, didn’t drain them of life-force like a shadow fox, and didn’t send strange messages on autumn leaves. It was just a kin that played a pleasing tune without human intervention.

The old monk turned from Hiromasa and gestured to another of his brethren. “Take the novices back to their rooms and send a message to the town. Go quickly. Tell the headman what’s happened here tonight. He’ll know what to do.”

“The headman needs to know about a haunted kin?” Hiromasa asked.

“Yes. The town needs to be prepared.” The monk swung around, his gaze dull and resigned. “Unless it’s already too late. It’s difficult to be accurate—it’s been a while since the last incident, and people forget how to be urgent. They take their safety for granted when it happens but rarely...” He trailed off into a sigh, helpless and miserable.

Alarmed now, Hiromasa flicked a look at Seimei, who stood on the threshold of the storeroom still listening to the music. Returning his attention to the monk, Hiromasa prompted, “What happens so rarely? The music?”

“The murders.”

“Murders,” Hiromasa repeated, not sure if he’d heard correctly. “What murders?”

The old monk visibly pulled himself together, shaking off his despondency and standing straight. “It’s a sign. An omen. Each time the haunted kin plays, two people from Kuwana die. A man and a woman—it’s always one man and one woman. The kin plays to warn the town, but sometimes we hear the song too late. Sometimes I think we’re meant to hear it too late.”

Hiromasa swallowed, his skin crawling. The shower of notes no longer sounded pure and sweet; he imagined he heard blackness inside the melody, evil curling around each note. “These murders... how often do they occur?”

“That’s the problem.” The monk fixed his gaze on the darkness creeping out of the storeroom. “The last murders took place seventeen years ago. Before that, there was a run of killings, one, three, six years apart, then four years. That’s as far back as I can recall, but when I was a young novice I remember the older monks telling stories of murders happening at random intervals dating back to the reign of the Emperor Seiwa.”

“But that’s more than eighty years ago!” Hiromasa shuddered and took a step closer to Seimei. “Surely the killings must be the work of a demon.”

“Or a disgruntled family,” Seimei said. “A grudge handed down from father to son. An inheritance of hatred against the town.”

The monk pursed his lips. “That’s a more comforting theory. Talk of demons scares the novices.”

Seimei smiled a little.

Hiromasa looked at the monk. “There’s no pattern to these killings?”

“The method is the same, but the intervals between murders vary, as I told you. The other similarity is that they always happen at this time of year.”

“In the fifth month?” Seimei asked. His disinterested tone had such a studied manner about it that Hiromasa glowered at him with suspicion.

“Before the rains,” the monk replied. “Always before the rains.”

The three men stood silent, listening to the music. The tune dipped and soared, the notes now plaintive, now buoyant. It was an emotional piece, a melody that tugged at Hiromasa’s heartstrings. He felt its nuances catch at him, felt its power flicker and dance. The harmony seemed familiar yet strange. He listened closely, then shook his head. “I don’t recognise the music.”

“Nor me.” The monk tucked his hands into his sleeves and shivered. “No one knows the melody. Not even master musicians.”

“It’s Chinese.” Seimei half closed his eyes, leaning into the music as it spun around them. “An old song. Very old. I’d almost forgotten the tune.”

“What’s it called?” Hiromasa asked, the monk echoing the query a moment later.

Seimei didn’t reply.

Hiromasa sighed and exchanged a look with the monk. Nodding towards the storeroom, he asked, “The kin... Who did it belong to?”

The monk lifted his hands and shrugged. “No one knows. There must have been a record of donation once, but it has been lost to fire or flood or the gnawing of insects, and now no one can remember when the kin came here or why it was given, or in whose memory it was offered.”

The music quieted then resumed in a series of long, rippling chords that grew in intensity. It sounded like rain lashing against roof-tiles, a pulsing, angry rhythm with sharp, frantic notes plucked from the thunderous noise.

Hiromasa put a hand to his head, his thoughts trying to break through the cacophony. “A kin with no known origins that’s able to predict double murders at odd intervals—tell me, brother, why haven’t you destroyed it?”

The monk’s expression darkened. “We’ve tried. I’ve lost count of the number of ways we’re tried to rid ourselves of the instrument, but nothing we do makes the slightest difference. We’ve removed the strings, but they reappear. We’ve thrown it on a fire, but it won’t burn. We’ve smashed it with an axe, but it won’t break. We’ve taken it out of the shrine and hurled it into ravines and buried it beneath the earth. We’ve even weighted it down and thrown it into the sea—but it comes back. We can’t get rid of it.”

The music stopped.

“Ah,” said Seimei, and he stepped inside the storeroom.

Startled, Hiromasa glanced at the monk, who shook his head and backed away, suddenly mumbling about his duties. Reluctant to leave Seimei facing the haunted kin alone, Hiromasa ventured over the high threshold and into the blackness. Dust and the smell of old paper and dried mildew tickled his nose, making him sneeze. He groped about in the dark, collided with something hard and wooden, tripped over the hem of his top-robe, and banged his shin.

“Really, Hiromasa.” Seimei’s voice was warm and affectionate. “Must you blunder about like an ox in a porcelain shop?”

“Not all of us can see in the dark,” Hiromasa grumbled.

Seimei’s laughter was more musical than the kin. He opened a window, pushing the shutters wide to let in the night. A shaft of weak moonlight shaped his face and poured over the black silk of the cloak. At his feet, the long, elegant kin sat silent, its silken strings creaking as they de-tuned.

Hiromasa went closer, filled with yearning. Maybe it was the effect of the ghostly music; maybe it was the moonlight, the way it silvered Seimei’s skin and deepened his shadows. For an unbearable moment, Hiromasa struggled with the thought that he was losing Seimei, watching him withdraw behind a veil of earthly detachment. “Seimei,” he said quietly, urgently, “Seimei, please—”

“The seasons are changing.” The interruption was soft but deliberate. As if aware of Hiromasa’s fears, Seimei lifted his head and looked at him steadily. “There is no need for concern, Hiromasa. The rains will come soon.”

Hiromasa exhaled, fussing with his sagging top-robe to recover his equilibrium. Relief made him irritable. “You’re here to rest, do you hear me? I forbid you to get involved in this matter.”

Seimei arched his eyebrows. “You forbid me?”

A wave of embarrassment washed through Hiromasa. “I didn’t mean—that is to say... Seimei! I outrank you! Not that you’ve ever paid the slightest bit of attention to rank before, but I do outrank you, and so you should take my advice—my orders, I mean—and I insist that you use our time here to rest and recover. Rest, Seimei—that means not running off to solve an eighty-year-old murder mystery!”

Seimei gave him a look. “I had no intention of running off to do anything.”

Hiromasa nodded, pleased. “Good.”

“You, however...” The pause stretched out, and then Seimei smiled, his eyes alight with mischief. “Hiromasa, I want you to go into Kuwana tomorrow and make enquiries about the murders.”

“But...” Hiromasa flailed with his response, “what will you do?”

“What do you think?” Seimei stepped past the kin and headed for the door. “I’m tired. I intend to sleep in.”

* * *


Hiromasa stepped out into the morning sunshine, refreshed despite the late night disturbance. He inhaled a deep breath and looked around with delight at the sloping hill with its yellowing grass, glossy-leaved shrubs, and thick swathe of forest. Birdsong carried on the air. So pleasant was it that he could almost forget the strange music of the haunted kin and the old monk’s tales of murder.

The monastery gate clattered shut behind him, and he turned to beam at his companions, a pair of monks with expressions as sober and grey as their robes. The abbot, sensible of Hiromasa’s consequence even if Hiromasa himself couldn’t care less about ceremony, had insisted upon providing an escort to accompany and guide him around Kuwana.

It was a fine morning for a ride into town. Hiromasa intended to borrow or hire an ox-cart or palanquin to carry Seimei back to Heian-Kyo in comfort; it was on this business and this business alone that he was venturing into Kuwana, he told himself. Regardless of what Seimei had asked of him last night, he was not going to the town to ask rude questions about the murders. Besides, there may not have been any murders—the old monk had sent a message warning the townsfolk, after all, so Hiromasa decided there was no point in poking his nose into a matter that clearly didn’t need his attention.

Even if it did need his attention, he didn’t want Seimei to get involved. Although it was the start of the hour of the Snake, he’d left Seimei dreaming, still wrapped in his court cloak. Hiromasa had woken a full hour earlier and spent a foolish amount of time watching Seimei sleep. To Hiromasa’s chagrin, it seemed that the only time Seimei found any rest was during sleep. Awake, Seimei looked pale and wan, the long track of shadow fox poison fading by slow degrees but still causing him pain. There was something dark in Seimei’s gaze, too—something wary and afraid in the way he looked at Hiromasa, and this more than anything else made Hiromasa desperate to fix things, to protect him.

Hiromasa mounted his post-horse and settled onto the saddle. This whole mess was his fault. If only his cousin Fujiwara no Kinto hadn’t mentioned the peculiar incidents that had affected his homeward journey from Suruga province, Hiromasa wouldn’t have persuaded Seimei to investigate. Not that Seimei needed much persuading to leave the capital on what started out as a leisurely trip along the eastern road, but even so—Hiromasa considered it his fault and assumed full responsibility. Seimei had told him several times not to blame himself for what had happened, but Hiromasa still fretted.

As if it wasn’t enough that he worried about Seimei’s health, there was also the distance that had grown between them since Sunomata. That night in Lord Masakado’s estate, when Seimei had saved him from three hungry ghosts, Hiromasa had discovered that the rumours regarding Seimei’s parentage were true. The revelation had hurt, but it seemed to pain Seimei more, for ever since he’d avoided Hiromasa’s touch and shunned even the most innocent overtures of affection. Hiromasa wanted to tell him it didn’t matter, but Seimei refused all discussions on the subject.

Determined not to darken his mood by brooding on such thoughts, Hiromasa pushed his worries aside and set off at a brisk pace. The monks trotted to keep up on their borrowed mounts. It was too early for the sun to have reached its full strength, and a gentle breeze blew in from the sea. A dove fluttered skywards, white pinned against blue before it turned on the wing and flew away. In the shrubs ahead of them, sparrows chattered and hopped from branch to branch. In a tree, another bird with a dark stripe over its eye and a grey-brown body flicked its tail and fixed Hiromasa with a look before uttering a shrill alarm call that scattered the sparrows.

The monks urged their horses closer, casting nervous glances at the grass and shrubs lining the path. Hiromasa felt his good cheer begin to slip. “Don’t worry,” he said, trying to rouse his companions from their gloom. “I’m sure we’re safe enough. The murderer only takes one man and one woman, so there’s no need for us to be concerned.”

“If you say so, lord.”

The monks sounded miserable, and Hiromasa realised he could have worded his reassurances more sympathetically. Of course these men would be worried, not for their own safety but for family members living in the town. He tried again, adopting a reasonable tone. “If the murderer had struck last night, the abbot would have received word. It’s been seventeen years since the last incident. Maybe the murderer is dead by now. There’s no point in being fearful. An absence of news isn’t bad news.”

Silence followed this statement. Hiromasa flicked a look at his companions and saw their tight expressions. Annoyed for discussing the subject he hadn’t intended on broaching, he shifted tack and asked a few questions about Kuwana. He and Seimei had passed through but not stopped on their journey east, and he was ignorant of what the town produced.

One of the monks brightened at the change of topic. “Kuwana is known for its clams, lord, and fat, juicy carp. The seafood is exquisite, the best you’ll taste along the Tokaido. My cousin has a restaurant in town. Perhaps...” He trailed off, blushing when Hiromasa glanced at him. “Forgive my presumption, lord. My cousin’s fish stew is famed in these parts.”

Hiromasa gave him a big smile. “Then I must try it. As soon as I’ve completed my business in town, lead me to your cousin’s restaurant.”

With their good moods restored, the remainder of the journey into town passed quickly in discussion of types of fish and the best way to eat them. Hiromasa let the conversation lapse as they passed through the gates of Kuwana. Riding down the main street, he looked about with interest. Roads and lanes led down to the estuary and the seafront, giving glimpses of the bustle of the wharves. Ships large and small rode at anchor, trailing coloured pennants. On the main street, shopkeepers fussed over the displays of their goods while peddlers and food-sellers roamed back and forth crying their wares. Carts rolled slowly along the road, and oxen and horses added their own stink to the drifting smell of fried fish.

On the surface it looked like a normal day, but Hiromasa prided himself on being able to look beyond the superficial. He noticed the way people walked with hunched shoulders and flickering gazes, the way women huddled together and whispered behind their hands, and the way the men stared at him with naked suspicion. An aura of fear hung over the town, and Hiromasa felt his heart sink.

His escort rode ahead, declaring, “Make way for Lord Minamoto no Hiromasa! Make way!”, and soon a crowd gathered around him, murmuring to one another as they stared. The attention was peculiar but not threatening; the crowd seemed curious, keeping pace with his horse. Soon the number of people surrounding him grew large enough that Hiromasa stopped, worried in case a child ran beneath the hooves of his mount, but someone took the reins and led his horse towards a large shop that dominated the main street.

The monks dismounted. Hiromasa hesitated before following suit. The crowd drew back a respectful distance. Confused, Hiromasa turned to his escort. “What’s happening? Why am I here?”

“You’re here because we need your help.” A merchant emerged from the interior of the shop. Dressed in good quality silk and perfumed with enough scent to deaden Hiromasa’s sense of smell, the man stood with hands on hips, chin thrust out belligerently. “Come within, my lord, and we’ll talk.”

Hiromasa was accustomed to Seimei’s casual disregard for rank, but this man’s presumption in ordering him around rankled. It was only when he was seated inside the shop with a tray of pickled snacks and a cup of fine wine placed in front of him that Hiromasa realised the merchant’s aggressive demeanour hid a desperate worry. He also realised that the cloying scent that emanated from the merchant’s person was due not to over-use of fragrance but to his wares—this was a spice and incense shop, stuffed full with all kind of condiments and ingredients for blending incense, from fresh ginger and powdered abalone to cloves and agalwood.

The merchant knelt opposite Hiromasa, his hands clasped tight in his lap. Though clearly he had some matter of great importance to blurt out, he retained enough humility to enquire after Hiromasa’s needs first. “Forgive me for waylaying you and your escort, my lord. Whatever your business here, I will do everything in my power to secure it for you. Only say how I may serve you.”

Hiromasa took a sip of wine. “I wish to hire an ox-cart to carry myself and a companion to Heian-Kyo.”

“Please use my carriage.” The merchant bowed, unknotting his hands long enough to press them to the floor. His fingers trembled. “It is well appointed and comfortable, and I have contacts all along the Tokaido who will furnish you with fresh oxen. I will send servants to accompany you, for a man of your station should not be travelling without proper escort...”

Hiromasa wrinkled his nose and took another sip of wine.

“I ask only one thing in return.” The merchant straightened and looked at Hiromasa directly. “My second wife has vanished. Please use your abilities and influence to investigate her disappearance, my lord.”

Startled by the request, Hiromasa set down his wine cup. He’d been expecting some reference to the murders, but this was something else. He considered himself an expert in dealing with matters involving women. This would be an easy case for him to solve, and even better, he wouldn’t need to trouble Seimei about it.

“Tell me more,” Hiromasa invited.

The merchant relaxed slightly. “It happened last night. Pearl—that’s my second wife—she usually retires to bed the same time as my first wife. They’re like sisters, not a cross word between them, but last night my first wife came to tell me that Pearl had put on a hat and cloak and left the house during the hour of the Pig. My wife had asked where she was going and why, but Pearl wouldn’t speak to her—just pushed her aside as if she were a stranger.”

Hiromasa glanced around the shop until he saw the woman who’d served the food and drink. The first wife, he guessed, studying her plump shape and drawn features. He supposed Pearl was young and beautiful, and wondered if the second wife’s disappearance had been engineered by the first wife in a fit of jealousy.

“I alerted the menservants and we searched for Pearl. At first I thought perhaps she’d received word from a relative or friend in town who needed her assistance, but Pearl would never go out without asking leave, and she certainly wouldn’t wander around town unaccompanied. We live in a good neighbourhood but Kuwana is a port, and sailors are... boisterous when on shore.” The merchant frowned and stared at his clenched hands. “Women of good family know better than to walk about alone.”

“You found no trace of her?” Hiromasa prompted.

“None. Nothing to tell us where she went. And this morning, just after sunrise, a friend of mine—he owns five of the ships here at port—he came to tell me that one of his sailors had disappeared. It made no sense—the sailor was a good man, respected by his fellows and trusted by my friend. The sailor had charge of one of the ships. He was paid well and had a wife and child in a village along the coast. He had no reason to disappear, and yet he simply walked out of an inn last night during the hour of the Pig. His comrades went after him, but he was nowhere to be found.”

Hiromasa reached for the wine and took a long swallow while he organised his thoughts. He hesitated to voice the obvious conclusion, especially as what looked like half the town were standing outside the shop, watching and listening to their conversation. When he could no longer avoid saying something, he said delicately, “The sailor and Pearl both disappeared during the hour of the Pig. Surely there is some connection.”

The merchant gave him a look of disbelief. “Of course there’s a connection!”

“Well...” Hiromasa squirmed inwardly, not wanting to voice his opinion out loud. “You know your wife. Perhaps you would give me your thoughts on the matter.”

“It’s obvious,” the merchant said, thumping his fists on his knees. “They were both taken by the murderer. The monastery sent a message last night—it was cried through the streets—the haunted kin had played again. It’s been seventeen years but we haven’t forgotten. We know what happens when the kin plays. A man and a woman are taken from their families and murdered—and this time the bastard’s snatched my Pearl!”

Hiromasa sat back, shaken by the vehemence in the merchant’s voice. “Then you don’t think it was arranged—that your wife and the sailor had made plans to run off together...”

The merchant looked stunned, as if the thought hadn’t even occurred to him. “She wouldn’t—Pearl wanted for nothing. She loved me. We were happy, all of us together. She had no reason to run off with a sailor. Besides, he had a family of his own.”

Wisely, Hiromasa decided not to pursue that line of questioning. “Have you informed the headman?”

“This morning,” said the merchant, “as soon as I’d heard about the sailor. The headman set out immediately to look for them. He hasn’t returned.”

Uneasiness slid through the crowd outside. A wave of muttering rose and fell. Despite himself, Hiromasa shivered. “You heard from your friend at sunrise, you said.”

The merchant nodded. “The middle of the hour of the Tiger.”

“Four hours ago,” Hiromasa murmured.

“He should’ve found them by now.” The merchant uncurled his fists and clutched at his robe, twisting the silk between his fingers. At the back of the shop, his first wife wept softly but steadily into her sleeves.

“If the murderer took them, he’d have found them by now,” the merchant continued, brittle-voiced. “I remember the last time it happened. There’s usually a trail—blood and clothes... easy enough to follow. He should be back by now. He should be here, telling us the worst. But he’s late. Maybe the murderer killed the headman. Maybe they’re all dead.”

The merchant’s composure was unravelling fast. Hiromasa had no idea how to comfort a man in such a state of distraction and instead asked the first thing that came to mind: “If you believe your wife is already dead, what do you want me to do?”

The merchant wiped his eyes with a savage gesture. “You’re a lord. A high-ranking nobleman. Our headman does his best, but these things are beyond him. We’ve begged the honourable governor to help us, but he’s never even visited the province, let alone set foot in Kuwana. We demand justice, Lord Hiromasa—justice from the capital. If you were to investigate, we would be forever grateful. We know it’s not your duty to involve yourself in provincial matters, but please—we’re desperate. We need an end to this business. We’ve been waiting for years for someone from the capital to listen to us and help us. We can’t keep living in fear.”

The crowd outside the shop rumbled in agreement, and cries of “Justice from the capital! Help us, Lord Hiromasa!” came from all sides.

Hiromasa hesitated, his feelings torn. The current governor of Owari was someone he knew socially, a man more interested in collecting Chinese paintings than concerned about the people nominally under his leadership. The governor had never stirred himself to travel outside Heian-Kyo and certainly would not lift a finger to help the townsfolk of Kuwana. Even so, Hiromasa wasn’t sure that he should get involved. Trying to demur, he said, “I’m not certain I’m qualified to investigate a matter of this seriousness...”

“You came here with Abe no Seimei.” The merchant leaned forward, his expression ablaze with conviction. “Lord Seimei’s skill at uncovering mysteries and defeating demons is unparalleled. If you won’t help us, perhaps he will.”

Hiromasa sucked in a breath, aware that he’d been outmanoeuvred. He didn’t want any of this to bother Seimei. It was bad enough that Seimei had expressed an interest in the murders last night. If the townsfolk were to appeal to him directly, Hiromasa had no doubt that Seimei would embroil himself in trouble and endanger his recovery—and Hiromasa was determined not to let that happen.

There was only one thing to do. Rising to his feet, Hiromasa glanced at the waiting crowd then looked back at the merchant. “I will do it. I will help you. I promise I will find the murderer and bring him to justice.”

* * *


The events of the morning hadn’t quite robbed Hiromasa of his appetite, but he knew he’d done a disservice to the excellent fish stew served by his escort’s cousin. His head was too stuffed full of thoughts for him to enjoy the meal, and on the way back to the monastery, the stew sat heavily in his stomach. He ignored the monks’ attempts at conversation and scowled at the birds that had so delighted him on his outward journey.

His mood was not improved when he arrived at the monastery to hear the delicate notes of the kin falling through the still afternoon air. His companions blanched and excused themselves, claiming they had to tend to the horses. Hiromasa stood alone in the courtyard, listening to the music and wishing he hadn’t eaten two bowls of the fish stew.

It was not the tune of last night, he realised. This melody was sweeter, more poignant—and again, Hiromasa didn’t recognise it. He followed the sound to the little storeroom and found the door closed. Pushing it ajar, he crept closer to the high threshold and peered inside.

“Seimei,” he muttered, and opened the door wide. He stepped within, his eyes adjusting to the half light after the brightness of the day. Now he saw what he hadn’t seen last night—old pieces of broken furniture stored in haphazard fashion, piles of boxes, broken objects he couldn’t even begin to identify, and heaps of tattered old scrolls that bore the marks of water, fire, or insect damage.

Beside the unlatched window, Seimei knelt on the floor, careless of the thick smudges of dust spoiling the brilliant white of his hunting costume and the soft spring green of his hakama. The kin lay balanced across his lap, the twisted silken strings pale against the dark wood as he played. A spherical silver incense burner sat nearby, trailing a spiral of scented blue smoke.

Hiromasa watched him draw the tune from the instrument. He’d seen Seimei play the kin before, at home and at court, but this time it seemed like a more intimate performance. Head bowed over the kin, Seimei played with unusual intensity, his cheeks flushed, lips parted, eyes half closed as the music swept him along. A few strands of hair had worked loose from beneath his lacquered hat and hung in wisps around his face. He looked elegant, desirable, and Hiromasa caught his breath as a dart of longing struck him.

Seimei plucked a series of drawn-out chords, the sound wavering, rising and dying as his fingers slid the length of the strings. With a shiver, Hiromasa recalled how Seimei kept the nails of his right hand long and sharp so he could play the kin. Just how sharp, Hiromasa had reason to know better than most. Desire seemed inappropriate at that moment, and he focused his attention on the music. He listened closely and noted with satisfaction that, apart from a few blurred notes, the injury inflicted by the shadow fox seemed to have had no serious detrimental effect on Seimei’s playing.

The music stopped, the notes fading. Seimei sat staring at the kin as if in a daze.

Hiromasa coughed slightly to announce his presence, and when Seimei looked up, said, “That was beautiful. Your own composition?”

A fresh wash of colour touched Seimei’s face. “No.”

“A Chinese tune?” Hiromasa ventured forward, unable to shake off the impression of intruding into a private moment.

Seimei laid his right hand flat across the strings of the kin. “Tell me of your visit to Kuwana.”

The dismissal of his question gave Hiromasa pause. He swallowed the brief stab of hurt and went no closer. Instead he stopped beside a wooden box with its lid askew. Needing a distraction, he moved the lid and discovered that the box contained dozens of clay amulets inscribed with incomprehensible symbols. Keeping his voice unemotional, Hiromasa narrated the events of his morning in the town. As he did so, he sorted through the box, picking up the amulets and cradling them in one hand.

He’d just reached the part in his story about eating two helpings of fish stew when Seimei interrupted him.

“Hiromasa.” Seimei shifted position, pushing aside the kin. He was smiling, distantly amused. “You really shouldn’t touch those amulets.”

“Why not?”

“They’re other people’s prayers. Handling them makes you responsible for them, and you’re not a god.”

“Oh.” Hiromasa gazed with trepidation at the handful of amulets he’d collected. “I’ll put them back.”

“That would be a good idea.” Faint humour still lit Seimei’s expression. “I’ll give you a charm to undo the weight of expectation that’s accrued on you since you touched them.”

Emptying the amulets back into the box, Hiromasa paused and glanced up. “Will it hurt?”

Now Seimei looked insulted. “When has my magic ever harmed you?”

“Not me,” Hiromasa said hastily. “The owners of these prayers. Will it hurt their chances of success now I’ve handled the amulets?”

“No.” The word came out on a soft smile and a tired sigh. “Just be careful what you touch.”

Silence crawled between them. Hiromasa gave the amulets a doubtful look. He was never sure when Seimei was joking and when he was serious, but he seemed serious enough this time. Still, Hiromasa couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps they were talking at cross purposes. He hated it when Seimei did that. It made him feel foolish, and though Hiromasa didn’t mind looking foolish, he didn’t want to feel foolish in front of Seimei.

“So...” Somewhat awkwardly, Seimei broke the silence. “The spice merchant asked you to investigate the murders.”

“Yes.” Hiromasa located the lid of the box and replaced it, then leaned on it. “I talked to others in the town. Everyone’s frightened. The older inhabitants remember a time when the murders happened with greater frequency—one year, three years, six years, just as the monk told us last night. After a break of seventeen years, the townsfolk were hoping the murderer had moved on or died.”

Seimei picked up the incense burner and studied the smouldering heap of fragrance through the cage of filigree. The heat from the burner didn’t seem to bother him. After a moment he murmured something, and the embers winked out and went cold. “They suspect a demon.”

“It’s a reasonable assumption, considering the murders begin with a tune played on a haunted kin.” Hiromasa tried to keep the sarcasm from his tone. “Have you ever encountered this kind of thing before?”

“It would do you little good even if I had.” Seimei rolled the incense burner across the floor and watched it vanish into the shadows. “Demons are difficult to predict. Careful study of its habits will reveal its identity, but to truly understand it, one must uncover its motivation.”

Hiromasa snorted. “I don’t want to understand it. Neither do the people of Kuwana. They want it brought to justice if it’s human and destroyed if it’s a demon.”

Seimei continued to gaze into the shadows. Softly he said, “You shouldn’t destroy something you don’t understand.”

“It’s evil! It’s terrorised Kuwana for more than eighty years, snatching innocent men and women and murdering them at random!” Annoyance crept into Hiromasa’s voice, and he drew himself up from the box to pace between the broken furniture and drooping scrolls. “I think that’s the worst thing about this business—the indiscriminate way the murderer chooses its victims and the arbitrary choice of when it commits its foul crimes!”

Seimei looked towards the kin, his expression thoughtful. “It’s not random. Not entirely.”

Hiromasa stared. “What?”

“There’s a pattern.” Seimei took the kin back onto his lap and stroked the dark wood. “What you describe as an arbitrary choice actually has a deliberate meaning.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know.” Seimei offered him a self-deprecating smile. “I do know that the intervals between killings are important, though.”

“Seimei—” Hiromasa stopped himself. He took a deep breath, exasperated by the conversation and by the impossible role forced upon him by the people of Kuwana. There was no way he could untangle a complicated murder case like this, especially if it involved demons, and although he didn’t want to drag Seimei into this unsavoury business, Hiromasa knew it would be resolved much quicker with the two of them working together. Adopting his most disingenuous air, he asked, “Will you help me?”

“No.”

“No?” Surprised, Hiromasa swung around so fast that his sleeve caught against a pile of scrolls and sent them tumbling across the floor. He crouched to retrieve them. “What do you mean, no?”

Seimei fiddled with the jade tuning pegs on the kin. “You made it perfectly clear last night that I was not to involve myself. No running off to solve eighty-year-old murder mysteries, you said. I need to rest and recover. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m resting.”

Hiromasa dumped the armful of scrolls back where he’d found them. Straightening, he dusted off his robes and narrowed his eyes at Seimei, suspecting mockery. “You could advise me.”

“I could.” Seimei played a note, cocked his head to listen, then tightened one of the tuning pegs. “You can solve this mystery, Hiromasa.”

“I can?”

Seimei gave him a soft smile. “Yes. It will be good for you.”

Hiromasa grunted. “A distraction.”

“Do you need distracting?” Seimei leaned over the kin, his fingers spreading, touching the strings. “I will stay here and meditate.”

“By playing a haunted kin?”

A ripple of notes cut the stillness. “There are things I need to consider.” Seimei played a few chords, making the instrument wail, and then the music cut off, stopped on a sour note. “Solve the mystery, and all will be well.”

“And what if I need your help?” Hiromasa asked again, uncertainty pressing down on his shoulders and panic sputtering in his chest.

“Then you shall have it.” Seimei looked up at him, eyes very bright but his expression gentle. “You are a good man, Hiromasa. Have confidence in your abilities.”

“Right.” Hiromasa waited a moment longer, hoping for more, but Seimei bent over the kin and started to play. As the melody rang around the echoing space of the storeroom, Hiromasa took his leave. He could almost feel the doubts following him out into the courtyard.

* * *


Later that afternoon, Hiromasa woke from a doze to the sound of the rising wind. The roof creaked above him, and from elsewhere in the temple he heard the faint resonance of a bronze bell. He rolled onto his side and brushed at the sweat-damp strands of hair that stuck to his face. The heat was stultifying, the air inside the room stagnating. He listened to the eerie moan of the wind and felt the urge to get up and go outside.

Dust rolled across the courtyard. Monks scurried along porches and walkways, heads bowed and robes flapping. The air seemed even hotter out here, though Hiromasa was glad of the wind when it dried his sweat and buffeted through his silks. He settled his cap securely on his head, rolled up his sleeves, fastened them with their cuff-ties, and strode out of the monastery gates.

He walked up the hill, his back to Kuwana. The path petered out, and Hiromasa picked his way through a line of trees. The heat was less intense the higher he climbed, but soon he was sweating from the unaccustomed exertion of clambering over roots and rocks and ducking beneath branches.

The woodland came to an abrupt halt at the top of a ridge. Beyond lay a meadow of dried grass and desiccated flowers bending and rustling in the breeze. A strong gust of wind shook the trees, sending down a shower of dried golden leaves. The sudden flurry prompted Hiromasa to move. He brushed the fallen leaves from his robes and ventured out into the meadow, heading for the figure standing alone in a field of autumnal shades. He saw a splash of white, of green; long black hair trailing like smoke—Seimei, motionless, head tilted to the heavens and the sunlight gilding his skin.

Hiromasa went towards him. “What are you looking at?”

Seimei smiled. “The wind.”

About to remark that one couldn’t see the wind, Hiromasa realised perhaps one could, in the hushing shapes of the grass, the movement of the ragged clouds, and the scattered flight of the birds. He stood beside Seimei and let himself relax, enjoying the warmth of the sun.

A piercing sound split the peace. Squinting around, Hiromasa identified its source—a bird on the wing, its body grey and buff with black bars and a stripe over its eye. It fluttered, turned about, and landed neatly on the sturdy stem of a dead plant. It sounded its call again, an unmusical combination of shrill warbling and clattering.

Seimei stared at it. The bird stared back, black eyes beady. It flitted and bobbed, its tail flicking as if in agitation.

Hiromasa thought he recognised the bird from this morning—surely it was the same one that had uttered an alarm call and scared off the sparrows. He watched its antics, amused. “What a funny bird!”

“A shrike.” Seimei looked at the whispering grasses and then back at the bird. “According to the almanac, shrike bury themselves in the fields and become weeds at this time of year.”

Hiromasa laughed. “A bird that turns into a weed? How strange.”

“The world has many wonders, Hiromasa, and many oddities.”

“But surely... how does a bird become a weed?”

Seimei turned on him then, his expression savage and full of sudden fire. “How does a fox become a man?”

Hiromasa stared at him in shock. He tried to speak, to say something, anything, but his gaze slid away, unable to meet the anger and fear in Seimei’s eyes. He took a deep breath of the dry air and tasted desolation. “When will the rains come?”

“Soon.” Seimei fixed his gaze on the empty horizon. “Soon.”

* * *


Part Two >>


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