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Fic: The Hawk Killer [Onmyouji] - 3/4

The Hawk Killer, Part 3


The weeks passed. Hiromasa settled into his duties at court, serving the birds of both His Majesty and His Eminence. He played the flute for them, and one time brought Genjou along in case they preferred the sound of a biwa, but His Eminence’s peregrines shrieked all through the tune until he gave up and returned to Ha Futatsu.

Senior Captain Kiyomi soon graduated him from cleaning out the mews to feeding and exercising the birds. The first time he flew one of the Emperor’s gyrfalcons, Hiromasa almost shook with nerves. The bird was kind to him and returned straight away, creeling for the food held in his hand. On the second flight, the gyrfalcon refused to come back, and Hiromasa trembled. Kiyomi ordered another bird brought out and they continued with the exercise, until at length the gyrfalcon swooped down and landed on its perch, showing no remorse for causing Hiromasa such anxiety.

Kiyomi took to asking Hiromasa to carry messages around the palace, sometimes sending him to accompany one of his higher-ranking colleagues. Aware that Kiyomi was helping to introduce him to men of power and influence, Hiromasa thanked him profusely. Kiyomi waved away his gratitude with an embarrassed laugh. “Junior sixth rank is far below you, Hiromasa. You deserve better than this. Until one of the Great Ministers realises your worth and puts your name forward for a more appropriate position at the Court Appointments, I intend to make the most of your talents with the hawks.”

“Even if I become a Grand Counsellor, I will still come back and play Ha Futatsu for the birds,” Hiromasa said.

Kiyomi chuckled. “Of all the promises I’ve ever heard, yours is the only one I believe.”

The imperial falcons were fed a variety of livestock bred specifically for the purpose in and around the city. Lord Tonaga, who had continued to take an interest in his cousin’s fortunes, proved very helpful in steering Hiromasa towards the merchants who offered the best quality feed. Hiromasa visited each merchant personally and inspected the condition of the animals, asked questions about the type of food the creatures had been raised on, and hand-picked the rabbits, quail, rats, and chickens destined to be meals for the imperial falcons.

Tonaga declared himself delighted with Hiromasa’s progress, and presented him with a set of fine red-lacquered jars in which to keep the imperial falcons’ feed.

This extra attention to their diet, along with the soothing music Hiromasa played for them, soon resulted in the birds looking more handsome than ever. Senior ministers heard about the marvels being wrought within the imperial mews and sent messengers to discover the secret. The Emperor ordered a selection of birds made ready for a hunting trip, and afterwards praised Kiyomi for his diligence and care. Kiyomi bowed and said he could claim none of the credit that was due to Hiromasa—and thus Hiromasa had his first introduction to His Majesty and spoke his first words with his uncle.

The exchange was noted by everyone who was anyone, and from that day forward, Hiromasa’s star rose steadily at court. Invitations poured in. Letters arrived at every hour of the day, some requesting his assistance in court matters, others suggesting marriage alliances, but the majority offering more casual, carnal liaisons. He found himself quite bewildered by the fuss, and although some of the ladies and gentlemen vying for his favours were said to be very attractive and most accomplished, Hiromasa longed for only one man.

Seimei had held himself apart ever since their meeting with Yozei. Despite Tonaga’s perpetual blandishments and demands, Hiromasa had refused to move out of Seimei’s house. Neither had he taken a house in the city, though several impoverished courtiers offered him their rundown estates on Nijo and Sanjo Avenues. Whenever he was off-duty, Hiromasa left the palace and spent as much time as possible with Seimei and the five shikigami. He hoped that, with time, Seimei would unbend a little and permit him greater intimacy, but though they dined together almost every night and sat drinking on the veranda until the moon started to sink towards dawn, Seimei continued to address Hiromasa as a valued friend and nothing more.

It was all very infuriating. Hiromasa tried hinting, at first delicately, then indelicately, but Seimei seemed oblivious. One night Hiromasa went to Seimei and complained of feeling cold. Instead of suggesting that they sleep together for warmth, Seimei presented him with several layers of robes. Hiromasa had piled them on his bed in a fit of pique and sweated for the rest of the night.

It would be easier to give up and accept the attentions of one or several of his other suitors, but Hiromasa could summon little more than polite interest in them. Thoughts of Seimei made him quiver with unsatisfied wanting; Seimei’s presence made him weak and happy and nervous and full of confidence. No one else even came close to inspiring similar devotion. Besides, Hiromasa liked a challenge. A few months ago he’d thought it impossible that he should go to the capital and make a place for himself at court, but now he had more than he’d dreamed of, more than his mother had hoped for. If he could achieve rank and position, he saw no reason why he couldn’t also win his heart’s desire.

After all, it wasn’t as if his interest was entirely one-sided. For all Seimei’s determination to treat him as a friend, Hiromasa had caught an increasing number of long, wistful looks aimed in his direction. Of course, whenever Hiromasa looked up boldly, ready to take advantage of the moment, Seimei would stare out into the garden or call for one of the shikigami. He never seemed flustered, but neither did he allow himself to slip back into the good-natured flirtatious manner he’d had at their first meeting.

Hiromasa bided his time, waiting for the right opportunity, his hopes enough to carry him through the disappointment he felt when he retired to bed alone. His hopes; and the recollection of those wistful looks alongside the treasured memory of one morning during the Fifth Month.

Seimei had returned from his weekly visit to Former Emperor Yozei, eyes black with pollution and his temper like waves hitting peaks and troughs. The shikigami withdrew into the northern wing of the house, but Hiromasa sat with him, not speaking, just offering silent solace, until darkness fell. It was the night of the full moon, and Seimei went out into the garden. He lay on the grass, absorbing the cleansing energy of the moon while Yozei’s pollution drained from him.

Unable to sleep, Hiromasa had gone out onto the veranda and watched over him. For a while Hiromasa played Genjou, touching the biwa’s strings with exquisite gentleness so the music was the barest wisp of sound. He nodded off, curled up beside the biwa, and woke just before dawn to find Seimei leaning close, long hair spilling down over his shoulders, his single under-robe clinging-damp with dew. Seimei’s eyes shone. They moved towards each other, still silent, both wanting. It was almost a kiss. Hiromasa felt Seimei’s warmth, the whisper of his breath—but then Seimei drew back, and the birds began to call the dawn chorus, and Hiromasa was left aching and clutching Genjou.

It really was frustrating.

By the middle of the Sixth Month, Hiromasa had had no less than nine conversations with His Majesty the Emperor and had attracted the notice of several prominent senior nobles of both the Left and the Right. The Great Ministers sent a chamberlain to visit Hiromasa’s room at the palace.

“Junior sixth rank is very irregular for a man of your breeding,” the chamberlain said, his mouth pursed. “Their Excellencies have made a thorough investigation of the nature of your late father’s crime and have concluded that, with hindsight, his punishment was more severe than the situation warranted. Though the decision of His Eminence the Late Emperor Daigo cannot be rescinded and your late father cannot regain the title he lost, Their Excellencies trust that you will be satisfied with a guarantee of advancement to lower junior fourth rank and the position of Commissioner at next year’s Appointments.”

When the news broke, Hiromasa found himself in even more demand than usual, with people tripping over themselves to push congratulations upon him. Overwhelmed by the attention, he fled the palace for the tranquillity of Seimei’s estate. Willow welcomed him home, taking his dress cloak and swapping it for something more informal. Still marvelling at his good fortune, Hiromasa joined the shikigami in their hall and enjoyed their restful presence.

Lilac and Saffron played the koto while the others conversed. Hiromasa remarked that the shikigami seemed to have improved their vocabulary in recent weeks, and the women exchanged glances and smiled.

“Because you talk to us,” Lilac said.

“Seimei doesn’t talk to you?” Hiromasa asked, surprised.

The shikigami giggled. “Sometimes,” said Lily. “But not often. Instead we read his moods.”

Hiromasa blinked. “You can read his mind?”

Camellia hid her laughter behind her sleeve, her eyes twinkling. “Mood, not mind. We can tell when he wants conversation and when he wants silence. Until you came to live with us, he mostly preferred silence. When you’re at the palace, it depends. Sometimes he talks, sometimes not.”

Something shifted, changed perspective, and Hiromasa drew in a sharp breath. He remembered with startling clarity the exchange between Seimei and Yozei, when the Former Emperor had said that Seimei didn’t like people who asked questions—and yet Seimei always answered any question Hiromasa put to him, even if the response was somewhat vague and nonsensical. He recalled, too, what Willow had said to him all those weeks ago. He hadn’t understood it at the time, but now...

He turned to her. “Miss Willow—do you remember when you told me I should be patient with Seimei? When you told me he is like you?”

“He is like shikigami.” She dimpled at him. “Much work to draw out, but worth the effort.”

Hiromasa exhaled on a soft laugh. “Yes. Yes, he is.” He smiled around at the women. “You all are.” He paused, not sure how to continue. “I...”

Willow nodded. “He is in the study.”

“Ah.” Hiromasa swallowed his nervousness.

Lilac handed him a wine-jar. Saffron gave him two cups. The shikigami smiled encouragement and drifted away, leaving him alone.

“Very well.” Hiromasa got to his feet, trying to ignore the knot of tension in his stomach and the flutter of anticipation in his throat. If even the shikigami were urging it, then it was high time he and Seimei were honest with one another. Not that Hiromasa had ever shied away from expressing his feelings, but perhaps he’d been too subtle, too concerned with losing his one true friend.

No more. He would declare himself, no matter what.

Hiromasa’s determination lasted as far as the threshold to Seimei’s study. There his bravery folded in on itself and slipped away like a paper doll borne on the breeze, and when Seimei looked up from his work and smiled, Hiromasa held out the wine-jar and cups and said, “I thought you might be thirsty.”

“How very kind. Thank you.” Seimei put aside his books.

Hiromasa sat opposite and poured the wine, trying to think of an innocuous subject, something—anything—that might help him bring the conversation around to their emotions.

“I heard about the chamberlain’s visit. A promise of promotion to fourth rank.” Seimei lifted his cup in a toast. “Congratulations. Soon you will be too high to associate with me.”

Hiromasa laughed, a short, nervous sound. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m being serious.” Seimei looked at him over the rim of the wine-cup. “My influence at court far exceeds my rank, and my quite nauseating wealth allows me far too much leeway, a fact that causes intense annoyance to most senior nobles. I am aware that our... relationship might be drawing to its natural close. It was my pleasure to help you find your feet, but once at court you found your own way, and that’s how it should be. From now on you should choose your friends carefully.”

Startled by this frank speech, Hiromasa put down his wine untouched. “I would never be as ungrateful as to cast you aside because of difference in rank!” He held Seimei’s gaze. “Seimei, we are friends. That means something to me.”

“And to me, but what is permissible for a provincial noble and a man of junior sixth rank is not necessarily permitted when one is elevated to fourth rank.” Seimei smiled slightly. “Some things are simply not done.”

“I don’t care.”

Seimei sighed. “Hiromasa, my association with Former Emperor Yozei could hurt you, and I will not allow that.” He dropped his gaze and said into his cup, “I care about you too much to see you harmed in even the slightest way.”

Hiromasa huffed out a breath. “Everyone at court knows we’re friends. No one remarks upon it. Cousin Tonaga and a few other nobles still insist you’re eccentric and dangerous, but to be honest, I think my refusal to leave you, to leave your house, I mean—your house and your companionship—I think people accept you a lot more than you think. Even with the whole pollution thing. Though that does still cause some concern. But it doesn’t bother me, and I live here, so I don’t see why it should bother anyone else.”

Seimei gave a small laugh. “You are such a good man, Hiromasa. You see the positive in everyone and everything.”

“And you don’t trust anyone.”

“True. I don’t.” Seimei took another sip of wine.

“Yet you asked me to trust you, when we first met.”

“I did.” A brief silence, and then Seimei raised an eyebrow, his expression mocking. “Well, then—I am contrary.”

“No,” said Hiromasa, his heart in his mouth. “I think you’re scared.”

Silence, much longer than before, stretched around them. Hiromasa began to wish he hadn’t said anything. He considered making a bolt for it, but why should he run away?

“Well, well,” Seimei said at last, his tone mild. He put down his cup and folded his hands in his lap. “Are there any other facets of my character you wish to explore?”

“Seimei...” Hiromasa stifled a sigh of frustration. This was not going the way he wanted. “You’re a yin yang master. You can do anything—yet your only friends are an insane former emperor and me, and now you want to push me away.” He reached out, only to withdraw his hand, too uncertain to touch. “The day we met... why did you help me?”

Seimei sat motionless. He stared down into his wine. “I saw you coming. It was ordained—written in the stars and forecast in every form of divination I know. I waited for you. I wanted to see you. Wanted to know if someone so pure and with such good intentions could really exist. I didn’t believe it, you see. But there you were, and it was true, and the only other creature to recognise it was the demon at Suzaku Gate.”

“Demon?” Hiromasa repeated, feeling a little faint.

A smile. “Yes. Ha Futatsu is a demon’s flute. I told you the person at Suzaku Gate was very discerning. He would only give the flute to someone worthy of Ha Futatsu’s song.”

“A demon!” Hiromasa shook off the distraction and gazed at Seimei. “And you waited for me? You knew I’d be on Nishiki Road that day?”

“Yes.” Seimei made a small movement with his hands, uncaging his fingers, folding them together again. “No one would help you, and that infuriated me. Your own family rejected you, refused to see the goodness inside you, and I—I couldn’t stand it. I had to do something. Because you were different. The capital hadn’t contaminated you with its greed and ambition. I looked at you and saw hope. Brightness and optimism shone from you. You were pure and good and perfect in every way.”

Hiromasa could barely breathe. “And now?”

Seimei lifted his head. “And now I see the same qualities. The city hasn’t tainted you. It never will. An unpolluted soul is so rare, Hiromasa. So rare.”

Hiromasa held his gaze. “Is that why you won’t touch me?”

Seimei took a breath; let it out in a hiss. “I cannot trust myself.”

“You won’t pollute me.” Confident now, his courage rising, Hiromasa sat forward. “Seimei. I don’t care that you take on pollution from associating with His Eminence. I don’t care if you’re half-fox. I am willing. This is what I want—if you want it, too.”

Seimei sat completely still. “It’s not the fox part of my nature that concerns me.”

Hiromasa moved closer. He took Seimei’s hand and laid it within his own robes at the throat, inviting more. “Try it. Just once. We need not speak of it again if I displease you.”

A wondering laugh broke from Seimei. “More likely it is I who will displease you.”

“Never.” Hiromasa bent his head and kissed Seimei’s hand; pushed back the white and violet sleeves and pressed kisses to his wrist. “Never,” he said again, pulling Seimei towards him. “Never, Seimei, never.”

* * *


Now his life was perfect.

Hiromasa returned to court ablaze with happiness, and if people whispered unkind things within his earshot about his choice of lover, he put it down to their own thwarted disappointment and ignored what they said.

Lord Tonaga said nothing at all and stopped inviting Hiromasa to stay with him. He also called on Hiromasa less, as did several of Tonaga’s friends. Not that this concerned Hiromasa in the slightest. His days were busy with the imperial hawks and visits to new acquaintances, and his nights were full of Seimei.

He refused to skimp on his palace duties and worked even harder with the birds lest anyone should say that being in love had distracted him from his tasks. Senior Captain Kiyomi commended him for his diligence and placed him in sole charge of the Emperor’s favourite hawks. When Former Emperor Yozei heard about the promotion, he demanded that Hiromasa should take sole charge of his birds, too.

Hiromasa arrived at the mews one morning to find Kiyomi looking worried.

“There’s something wrong,” the Senior Captain said, heavy brows drawn into a tight line. “His Majesty’s hawks seem sluggish. They don’t want to eat. They’re listless. Could you try playing them a tune, see if it’ll lift their spirits?”

“Of course.” Taking out Ha Futatsu, Hiromasa crossed the courtyard and entered the Emperor’s mews. The sight of the birds drooping from their perches or sitting forlorn upon the floor made Hiromasa’s heart ache. He hoped they weren’t ill. Bird diseases were often highly contagious and could wipe out the entire stock, but neither he nor his colleagues had noticed any signs of sickness before.

Hiding his concern, he walked up and down the mews, playing a few tunes. A couple of the birds responded feebly, turning their heads or rustling their wings, but the music had little effect. Not even when he played their favourite songs could he rouse them. He turned to see Kiyomi and another falconer standing in the doorway, anxiety weighing on their shoulders.

“Perhaps we should fly them,” the falconer said. “When all else fails, maybe exercise will do the trick.”

“Is there an animal doctor we can consult?” Hiromasa asked, tucking Ha Futatsu into his waist-sash beneath his cloak. “There must be someone in the capital that can recognise and treat these symptoms.”

Kiyomi shook his head. “I have the most experience of everyone in treating falcons, and I thought I’d seen all the bird diseases. Thought I knew them. But this one is beyond me. There’s been no sign of illness—nothing at all. This doesn’t make sense. The only thing I can think of is that the birds have been enchanted or cursed.”

Hiromasa looked at the birds with alarm. “Who would do such a cruel thing? Sir, we must make sure. We should send for a yin yang master. Send for all of them. If it’s a curse, they will know how to lift it.”

“Yes. Let’s try it.” Kiyomi gestured to the other falconer. “Run to the Bureau of Divination and request all the masters to come here at once.” The man bowed and dashed off. To Hiromasa, Kiyomi said, “In the meantime, we may as well see if the birds will fly. Help me move their perches outside.”

The hawks barely squawked in complaint as they were taken out into the courtyard, their perches arranged around the edge of the square. Hiromasa coaxed a gyrfalcon onto his padded wrist. The bird hunched over, shivering.

“Come on,” Hiromasa encouraged it. “Fly. Go on—fly!”

The gyrfalcon let out a cry and launched itself into the air. It flew only a few wing-beats before it plummeted to the ground. It struck the earth, gave a piteous shriek, then lay still.

“No.” Hiromasa crouched and picked up the bird. It didn’t stir. His eyes filled with tears and he cradled the lifeless body against his chest. He looked up when Kiyomi came over. “It’s dead, sir. It’s dead.”

Kiyomi looked stunned. “This is a disaster.”

From the south side of the courtyard came the sound of screeches and the flapping of wings. The noise got louder, disturbing the Emperor’s birds on their perches. Kiyomi shook his head, distracted. “His Eminence’s hawks are screaming to fly. I suppose it’s a blessing that his birds are untouched by this malaise. His Majesty is attached to his hawks, but not unreasonably so. His Eminence would probably kill us all if a single feather fell from one of his precious birds.”

The noise from Yozei’s mews continued unabated. Hiromasa got to his feet, still holding the dead gyrfalcon. “Maybe His Majesty’s birds should go back inside.”

“No. They stay out here until the yin yang masters have examined them.” Kiyomi turned in angry frustration at the increasing din from Yozei’s birds. “This is ridiculous. If they don’t come out, they’ll probably kill each other. Hiromasa, take the gyrfalcon indoors and wrap it in a bag—we’ll burn it later. Then come and help me with His Eminence’s insane birds.”

Kiyomi strode off across the courtyard while Hiromasa carried the dead falcon back into its mews. He stroked its head and the glossy feathers of its chest, saddened by the loss. If this was indeed a curse, he hoped Seimei and his colleagues could undo it before more birds perished.

He placed the gyrfalcon in a plain silk bag and wrapped it in its makeshift shroud. He lingered, reliving that awful moment when the bird had fallen from the sky, and then he heard a scream.

Hiromasa ran out of the mews and stopped, horror holding him still at the sight before him. Kiyomi was staggering across the courtyard, raw, ragged scratches covering his face and arms. His cap lay on the ground and his hair was half torn down, his cloak and robes rent. Half blinded by blood, he attempted to untether as many of the Emperor’s birds as possible. All the while, Yozei’s five hawks dived at the weakened, helpless imperial birds, picking them off one at a time, hurling them to the ground and tearing them open in a welter of blood and guts. A cacophony split the air, screeches of pain and shrieks of triumph. Kiyomi yelled for help, his voice desperate, panicked, and Hiromasa recovered his presence of mind.

He darted forward, pulling off his dress cloak and hurling it over three of the Emperor’s undamaged birds. He swung the cloak down and around, twisting it like a bag, bringing the birds down from their perches. The bells on their jesses rang and their creances twisted together. They moved feebly beneath the damask but seemed safe enough, hidden from the sight of Yozei’s hawks.

The merlin flew at him, shrieking defiance, and Hiromasa ducked. The falcon attacked the Emperor’s sparrowhawk, which tried to fly but found itself trapped by its creance. The two birds tussled on the ground. Hiromasa yelled at them, yanked off his court cap, and batted at the merlin. It turned and pecked him, flew at his face, and Hiromasa flung up his arms. The merlin beat against them, and Hiromasa threw himself forward, trapping the bird beneath the width of his heavy sleeves. He lay there, careful not to squash the merlin, until it stopped struggling.

Panting, Hiromasa looked around and saw Kiyomi had followed his example, covering a few more of the Emperor’s birds with his cloak. They had saved perhaps six or seven hawks. The rest lay dead, torn apart and scattered across the ground.

Yozei’s sparrowhawk and three peregrines lined up the roof of their mews, their beaks dipped red and gaping, crouching tight as if ready to fly to the attack again. Hiromasa sat up, slowly pulling his sleeves from around the merlin. The bird righted itself, gave him a bright-eyed look, then ran along the ground until it could take off. It joined Yozei’s other birds on the roof, looking down at the carnage they’d wrought.

Kiyomi was weeping as he stumbled to his feet and surveyed the destruction. Hiromasa checked on the Emperor’s sparrowhawk, which shivered with fright but otherwise didn’t move. He placed it gently on its perch and, keeping watch on Yozei’s birds, he opened his cloak to reveal the three birds he’d trapped inside it: a pair of gyrfalcons and the Emperor’s favourite bird, the male goshawk. He crooned something soothing, lifting the birds one at a time and settling them on their perches.

“Pollution,” Kiyomi said, his voice thick with tears. “This is unbearable. Unforgiveable.”

Hiromasa went over to the birds covered by Kiyomi’s cloak and examined them. “We saved seven of His Majesty’s birds, sir.”

“And thirteen are dead!” Kiyomi turned on him, wild-eyed. “Thirteen birds dead—slaughtered by five hawks! How is that even possible?” He spun, jabbing a finger at the roof of Yozei’s mews. “Those birds—they’re evil, as evil as their master. They’re polluted. A demon must have inspired them to kill His Majesty’s hawks. Yozei must have sent his pollution out to infect his birds. An attack on His Majesty’s hawks is an attack on His Majesty. This is the worst kind of pollution imaginable.” He dropped to his knees and covered his head with his hands, his body racked with sobs.

Hiromasa crouched to comfort him. At that moment, the falconer returned with a group of yin yang masters, and a cry of shock and dismay went up. The palace guards were summoned, and ministers and courtiers and pageboys and servants pushed and shoved through the main gate as rumour spread and more and more cries of horror echoed around the mews.

No one dared come forward and set foot in the polluted space of the courtyard. They remained on the veranda of the main hall, pointing at Yozei’s hawks and discussing in loud, anxious tones how five birds had managed to kill so many larger creatures.

“By means of a curse!” Kiyomi shouted, silencing the crowd. “Yozei cursed His Majesty’s hawks to become feeble and enchanted his own birds, giving them abnormal strength and speed. We tried—” he indicated himself and Hiromasa, “we tried so hard to save them. But how could we fight such a vile pollution?” His voice cracked, and he gave way to grief again. “My birds. My beautiful birds.”

As if mocking his distress, Yozei’s sparrowhawk uttered a chuckling cry.

Seimei pushed his way through the crowd and strode into the courtyard. He paused to gaze at Yozei’s birds lined up on the roof, then crouched to examine the pathetic remains of the Emperor’s hawks. He straightened and approached the men. Ignoring Kiyomi, he looked at Hiromasa. “What happened?”

Hiromasa told him the sequence of events, trying to keep a check on his emotions. “The Senior Captain believes His Eminence cursed His Majesty’s birds,” he said in closing. “Please, Seimei—is it true?”

Seimei said nothing. He paced around the surviving birds on their perches, going close to them then backing away. He looked again at Yozei’s hawks on the roof, then he knelt on the ground and made a careful study of one of the dead falcons. He felt the body, ran his forefinger through its guts, sniffed the flesh, tasted its blood. Then he rose to his feet and headed for the Emperor’s mews.

“Seimei?” Hiromasa started after him, but a commotion at the gate made him turn. Lord Tonaga and the Minister of the Right arrived, the Minister’s escort hurrying to catch up. Several more guards accompanied them, and once the Minister had had time to absorb the sight before him, he snapped out an order. All the guards present fanned across the courtyard and began to search the mews.

The Minister of the Right swept across the courtyard, Tonaga trotting at his side. “This is an outrage,” the Minster declared. “His Majesty’s birds attacked and destroyed by hawks belonging to His Eminence—it’s appalling! A terrible crime, a crime to shake the very foundation of the throne! Why did this happen—no, how did this happen?”

“Poison.”

The word rang out, spread like a shockwave through the waiting crowd. His breath catching, Hiromasa turned to see Seimei emerge blank-faced from the mews carrying a red lacquered jar. Hiromasa shook his head, horror crawling over him, denial closing his throat. No. It couldn’t be. It was impossible.

Seimei walked into the middle of the courtyard and inverted the jar. A pile of rabbit carcasses dropped to the ground with a wet, rotten sound. The Minister of the Right flinched, disgust on his features.

Holding out the jar, Seimei indicated the glossy internal surface. “This has been treated with poison. Look.” He thrust the jar closer to the Minister of the Right. “See those scratches? Whoever prepared these jars was clever indeed. The poison lies beneath a protective layer. It took time for it to work through to the surface. Whoever used these jars was thorough and attentive, not just sluicing them out with water but cleaning them properly, scrubbing and drying each one. And it was that simple action—cleaning out the jars—that brought the poison to the surface. It infected the feed, killed the older birds, and left the others weak and defenceless.”

Kiyomi lifted his head, face slack with shock. “But His Eminence’s hawks—they were so vicious...”

“They’re wild,” Seimei said, his voice hard. “His Eminence trained them to be cruel. A wild creature knows when one of its kind is weak. It knows when it can kill. Do not blame His Eminence’s birds for acting according to their nature.” He tossed the lacquered jar aside. “There is no curse. The Emperor’s birds were poisoned.”

Seimei gave Hiromasa a brief, unreadable look and walked off.

“Poison...?” Kiyomi reached for the jar.

Guilt and horror crushed Hiromasa. The red lacquered jars belonged to him. They were his special feed jars—a gift given to him by Lord Tonaga! Appalled by the implication, he gazed at his cousin, helpless and frantic.

Tonaga stared at him, then very deliberately turned his back and made his way across the courtyard.

“Well!” snapped the Minister of the Right. “Poison or a curse, it makes no matter. Pollution is pollution, and an attack against His Majesty’s birds is still treason. An outrage of this magnitude will not go unpunished. Guards, arrest the imperial falconers!”

* * *


Hiromasa was confined to his room in the palace, the shutters locked from the outside and a guard posted in the aisle beyond the lattice screen. At first he had a steady stream of visitors offering their support and declaring their belief in his innocence. They told him that his colleagues had all been rounded up and imprisoned. Later, the Secretary Controller came, his expression sombre, and said that opinion was beginning to turn.

“Senior Captain Kiyomi has told the Great Ministers that the red lacquered jars belong to you,” the Secretary Controller murmured through the screen. “Your fellow falconers swear it’s true.”

Hiromasa curled his fingers through the open lattice. “It is true. The jars are mine. But I didn’t put poison in them. Why would I do that? I love working with the imperial hawks. I would never do anything to hurt them. The Senior Captain knows that. Everyone knows that!”

The Secretary Controller glanced along the corridor. “Kiyomi is almost deranged with grief. He loved those birds as if they were his own children. By accusing you, he sees a way to save his skin, and the others are following his example.” He leaned close. “Listen to me, Hiromasa. If you know of anyone else who might have had cause to poison His Majesty’s hawks, if you can think of any reason why this might have happened—speak out now.”

Hiromasa drew in a deep breath. “My cousin Lord Tonaga gave me the jars.”

The Secretary Controller looked surprised. “Why should he wish you harm?”

“I don’t know. But he was the one who gave me the jars.”

“Very well. I will talk to some people and see if we can get to the bottom of this before the trial.”

“Trial?”

The Secretary Controller nodded. “Tomorrow, at the hour of the Horse. His Majesty is shocked by the pollution engendered by the deaths of his hawks. Half of the Bureau of Divination is walking around the mews casting spells to absorb the dark energy. Your friend Lord Seimei attends His Eminence. Former Emperor Yozei broke down into a bestial fit when he was accused of killing His Majesty’s birds. By the way, he didn’t deny it.”

Hiromasa exhaled. “That poor old man.”

A snort. “He’s a murderer. Save your pity.” The Secretary Controller paused. “Have your wits about you tomorrow, unless you want to end your career at court the same way your father did. Remember, your father was a prince. You are not. If you’re found guilty, you’ll be executed.”

Shock buzzed through his head. Hiromasa leaned against the screen and sank to his knees, trembling as nausea swept through him. Dimly he heard the Secretary Controller walk down the corridor, steps fading into silence. Fear gripped him, a cold sweat breaking out. He hadn’t considered—hadn’t even thought about what might happen to him. Losing his position, perhaps; being banned from court, maybe—but execution? No. That had never entered his mind.

Hiromasa forced himself to his feet and paced around the room. How had things gone so wrong so fast? And Seimei... Hiromasa recalled the anger in Seimei’s eyes when he’d tipped out the poisoned food. Surely Seimei didn’t believe he’d committed such an atrocious act? Maybe he did. Maybe that was why he hadn’t come here to offer his support. But the Secretary Controller had said that Seimei was with Former Emperor Yozei, so he couldn’t come even if he wanted to... Hiromasa groaned, torn by confusion and misery.

Footsteps sounded in the corridor outside. Hiromasa turned, hope blossoming, but instead of Seimei he saw Lord Tonaga. Uncertainty kept Hiromasa rooted to the spot, and for a moment they stared at one another in silence.

Tonaga pressed close to the lattice, his eyes glittering in an otherwise expressionless face. “The very first day you called at my estate, I told you to leave the city. I told you to go back to whatever miserable province spawned you. You should have listened.”

Hiromasa went towards him. “Why are you doing this?”

“My poor, foolish cousin. You’re as naive and spineless as your father.” Tonaga’s mouth twisted. “Revenge drives men to desperate lengths. With your background, I thought you’d understand. I thought you’d know what it’s like to hate the person who blighted your family. I thought that you’d want to avenge your father’s exile, but instead you smiled and laughed and acted as if the past had no bearing on your future!”

“I don’t understand.” Hiromasa held out his hands. “Cousin, please. What did I do to anger you? Why would you wish to harm me? I am no threat to you. This is all a big misunderstanding. Only tell me what I must do to put things right, and—”

Tonaga laughed. The sound emerged cracked, slid into a sob. “It’s not about you.”

None of this made any sense. His pity roused by Tonaga’s unhappiness, Hiromasa tried to reach for him through the gaps in the screen. “Cousin...”

“No.” Tonaga pulled away, wiping at his eyes with his sleeve. He gave Hiromasa a look of finality. “I warned you. Why didn’t you listen?”

Hiromasa stared after him as Tonaga hurried off along the corridor. The guard moved closer, no doubt curious to know what had transpired between them. Hiromasa turned his back and went to sit at his writing desk. He leaned against the wall, his thoughts in turmoil as he tried to tease meaning from Tonaga’s words. He tried not to think about the impending trial, but instead his mind was filled with the horror of the dead hawks, the slight weight of the gyrfalcon in his hands, the stink of the poisoned rabbit carcasses.

Wincing inwardly, Hiromasa closed his eyes. He thought of Seimei, longed for his presence, but this just made him more miserable. Despair seized him, and Hiromasa sank into it, letting his mind drift.

Dusk crept into the room. The guard exchanged greetings with someone, and the screen was moved to one side enough to admit a servant. “The evening rice, my lord,” the servant said, bowing, and placed a tray on the writing desk.

Hiromasa shook his head. “I’m not hungry.”

The servant hesitated. “You should eat, my lord.”

Surprised by the servant’s tone, Hiromasa looked up, but the man was ordinary, unfamiliar. Hiromasa almost scolded the servant for his presumption, but remained silent when he saw the letter folded beneath the rice bowl. “Yes,” he said. “Thank you.”

The servant bowed and withdrew. The guard moved the screen back into position and wandered off, whistling as he patrolled the aisle.

Ignoring the food and the small jug of wine, Hiromasa pulled out the letter and opened it. Something small and dark dropped into his lap, and he almost missed it, so surprised was he on seeing a blank sheet of paper. He tilted it one way and the other, held it to the light from the aisle, but saw no message. Bewildered, he put the paper aside and picked up the fallen object.

It was a lock of hair.

Hiromasa stared at it. He tickled it against his cheek and murmured at its softness. He held it beneath his nose and inhaled the familiar scent of cinnamon, sweet pine, and cloves. Seimei’s hair, the lock bound by a thin strip of ribbon. Puzzled, Hiromasa turned back to the piece of paper, but it was still blank.

He closed his fingers around the hair and held it tight. What did Seimei mean, sending him this rather than a proper message? Hiromasa sighed. A lock of hair was a love-gift. Perhaps Former Emperor Yozei’s madness prevented Seimei from sitting down and composing a letter; perhaps this was the only way he could reassure Hiromasa of his devotion. It seemed an odd thing to do, but nevertheless Hiromasa felt comforted.

He lay down on the sleeping mat, still holding the lock of hair. Perhaps, if he was lucky, it would bring him dreams of Seimei.

* * *


Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
aitakute
May. 17th, 2011 10:03 am (UTC)
I am at tears at Seimei's gift. (I suspect it must be one of his magic stuff, but oh does it matter, the symbolism was more poignant here.) Oh Seimei. ;_________________;
glitterburn
May. 17th, 2011 11:58 am (UTC)
Seimei never does things by half measures. An emotional gift but also practical!
aitakute
May. 17th, 2011 01:59 pm (UTC)
Hiromasa held his gaze. “Is that why you won’t touch me?”

Seimei took a breath; let it out in a hiss. “I cannot trust myself.”


I BAWL. *sobs* Well not bawl, realistically, but I'm semi-sobbing at that bit. I forgot to mention it earlier and I'm still moved again by this bit.

*ducks off to read the rest*
glitterburn
May. 17th, 2011 02:50 pm (UTC)
That scene is kinda my favourite bit too <3
aoi_shu
May. 27th, 2011 12:53 am (UTC)
http://www.tv-links.eu/tv-shows/Game-of-Thrones_25243/

haven't read this part yet, but will today in the evening.. running around like crazy. Yet LOOOVING every word of it, stretching the pleasure ^_^ <3


But found this show.. so far I like it. Dunno why, kinda like any other fantasy, but the characters are nice. Even one female character is growing on on me! Which is rare...
aoi_shu
May. 28th, 2011 02:13 am (UTC)
all the pains of being in love with a fox..
tell me about it...
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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