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Fic: The Hawk Killer [Onmyouji] - 2/4

The Hawk Killer, Part 2

Hiromasa spent the rest of the day in a profitable manner. Once Lord Tonaga had gone on his way, still advising against staying with Seimei, Hiromasa had walked into the Office of the Left Guards. A junior captain had been tasked to find the whereabouts of several of Former Prince Katsuakira’s friends, and Hiromasa trailed from one side of the palace to the other, introducing himself and drinking wine and listening to reminiscences. Some of his father’s friends displayed surprise that he’d come to the capital, but many offered to support his efforts once he’d received an official rank and imperial recognition.

Uncertain as to how he’d get such things, Hiromasa accepted a ride in an ox-cart belonging to the Secretary Controller, a man who’d once been close to his father.

“How do I reach His Majesty’s attention?” Hiromasa asked as the carriage juddered away from the palace. “I can’t just introduce myself. Though I’m His Majesty’s nephew, he must have dozens of relatives. Hundreds, even. I need to come to his notice in some remarkable way, but how?”

The Secretary Controller smoothed his wispy grey moustache. “Can you dance? His Majesty enjoys watching good dancers.”

Hiromasa shook his head. “I can’t dance, but I can play the flute and the biwa.”

The Secretary Controller wrinkled his nose. “His Majesty is less fond of musicians, perhaps because he is an excellent musician himself.”

Gloom descended, and Hiromasa’s shoulders slumped. He shook off the mood, lifting his chin, firing his determination. “I’ll find a way. His Majesty will notice me.”

“Just like your father.” The Secretary Controller smiled. “He wouldn’t let anything stop him once he set his mind to it. Be careful you don’t follow your father’s example too closely, Lord Hiromasa. It would be a shame if you were sent back to the provinces after so short a time at court.”

The Secretary Controller ordered his carriage to drive up to the gates of Seimei’s estate, but he refused Hiromasa’s offer of refreshments with the excuse of another appointment. “Besides,” the Secretary Controller said, “Lord Seimei is particular about whom he allows over his threshold. I would not wish to presume, not without his express invitation. Be well, Hiromasa. I shall see you at court.”

His head full of thoughts for his future, Hiromasa went inside. The house lay quiet and still, with not even the sound of footsteps or giggles to mark the presence of the women. Sunbeams spread golden across the polished floorboards, and dust motes danced between the light and the shadows. The scent of rushes and pine hung in the air.

His room was empty. Hiromasa sighed and changed out of his court robes, draping the stiff black silk over a shaped clothes hanger. He moved the hanger close to the windows and rolled up the bamboo blinds halfway to permit the breeze to brush against his formal garments. Opening the chest, he selected a casual outfit of a dark blue hunting costume and three layers of shading lavender-grey. Quite possibly the colours clashed and were inappropriate for the season, but while he was still in mourning he didn’t care so much about his appearance when relaxing at home.

The idle thought gave him pause. This wasn’t his home. Hiromasa frowned. How easy it was to think of Seimei’s house as a home. Easy and dangerous, if what Tonaga had said was true. Doubt crept into his mind, and Hiromasa succumbed to fearful thoughts of foxes and illusions once again before he shook out his sleeves and told himself not to be so foolish.

He strode out of his room and made his way along the bridgeways and galleries to Seimei’s study. Perhaps there, amongst all the clutter he’d seen yesterday, he would find evidence that Seimei was nothing more sinister than a gifted diviner and astronomer. Hiromasa had no idea what form this evidence would take, but he was sure he’d find something to convince his cousin.

The hush extended into the older part of the house, into Seimei’s private quarters. Hiromasa slowed his pace in deference to the quiet, aware of a subtle tension in the air. So accustomed was he to the emptiness around him that when he saw Seimei in the centre of the study, Hiromasa started back in surprise.

The room was tidy, the books and scrolls placed on the shelves, the writing desk tucked against a wall, and two painted screens folded out to divide the rest of the space. A cone of incense smouldered in a small brazier, sending blue twists of sandalwood and spikenard towards the roof.

Seimei knelt beside the brazier, the sleeves of his hunting costume unlaced from the shoulder and lying like shed wings behind him on the floor. He wore blue patterned silk, the shade veering towards violet, a single splash of colour against layers of white. His head was uncovered, the sight shockingly intimate, and as Hiromasa stared, Seimei reached up and unfastened his hair from its topknot, shaking it out to fall around his shoulders.

Only then did he turn his head in Hiromasa’s direction, eyes gleaming. “You’ve been listening to rumour.”

Hiromasa felt winded. “Not me.”

“So you haven’t heard that I’m a fox-child?”

Shaking off the lingering clutch of fascination, Hiromasa went towards him. “I did hear something...”

Seimei chuckled, the sound deep and rich. “Oh, Hiromasa.”

“I don’t believe it, though.”

“Don’t you?” Seimei’s eyebrows arched. “Perhaps you should.”

Aware of undercurrents shifting around him, Hiromasa asked, “Was your mother a fox?”

The only reply was a smile, which was not an answer. Hiromasa huffed. “You encourage me to believe gossip but refuse to confirm or deny it.”

Seimei laughed. “It’s more entertaining to believe in gossip rather than to hear the truth. But if you really want to know...” He reached inside his sleeve, took out an ivory comb, and tossed it to Hiromasa. Seimei flicked a hand through the length of his hair. “Check for yourself. Brush my hair. See if you can find my fox ears.”

The invitation was both troubling and exciting. Was this a seduction? Hiromasa adjusted his hold on the comb and knelt behind Seimei. Now was not the time to start worrying about his provincial experiences of lovemaking. Tentatively he angled the ivory teeth and pulled the comb down, only catching a little of Seimei’s hair.

Seimei uttered a small sound and nudged back against his hand. “Harder.”

Hiromasa felt his face flame, bewildered desire chasing through him. His fingers trembled and he took a tighter grip. He drew the comb through Seimei’s hair with brisk strokes, working the full length to ease out the few tangles. After a while, strands of hair clung to his hand and stuck to the silk of Seimei’s under-robes. Hiromasa leaned closer, enjoying the soothing, repetitive action and the scent of Seimei’s hair.

“No fox ears,” Seimei said, his voice soft and purring.

“No.” Hiromasa swept Seimei’s hair to one side and pretended to study the ear. “Looks like a human ear to me. But,” he added, remembering Tonaga’s other comments, “I suppose you could always cast a spell to hide your fox ears.”

“Cast a spell?” Seimei seemed diverted by the idea.

“Yes,” said Hiromasa, screwing up his courage to repeat his cousin’s accusation. “The way you cast a spell on women.”

Seimei ducked away from the next stroke and twisted around. He took the comb and held Hiromasa’s gaze. “So that’s what they’re saying about me now.”

“You have five exceptionally beautiful women living with you in perfect harmony. Of course people will talk!”

Seimei’s expression clouded. “It’s not like that. Not like that at all.”

“No one cares about the truth. You just told me that.”

“You’re right.” Seimei snorted and shook his head. “Are you asking to assuage your own curiosity or that of Lord Tonaga?”

“My own.” Hiromasa took back the comb and waited for Seimei to settle himself again. “I admit I’m very curious about the ladies who reside here. At first I thought they were provincials like me, but now I’m not so sure.”

Seimei made an amused sound, relaxing into the rhythm of the comb-strokes. “You’ve thought about them a lot?”

Hiromasa blushed. “They are very beautiful.”

“Quite.” Seimei clapped his hands, and within a few moments Safflower entered the study. She smiled as she approached them, and then within the space of a heartbeat, in the blink of an eye, the beautiful young woman transformed into a yellow flower.

Hiromasa exclaimed in shock, yanking the comb through Seimei’s hair so hard that several strands broke free, tangled in the ivory teeth. Seimei yelped, rubbing his scalp with one hand and reaching around to grab the comb with the other. Hiromasa scuttled backwards, words of feeble apology spilling from him, his gaze fixed on the pretty yellow flower. It rolled from side to side as if blown by a breeze, and he was sure he could hear the echo of feminine laughter.

“As a demonstration of magic, that was perhaps a little flawed,” Seimei said, still rubbing at his head.

“I’m sorry. So sorry.” Hiromasa couldn’t take his eyes from the yellow flower. “Is—is that...”

Seimei dropped the comb into his lap and leaned forward. He picked up the flower and held it balanced in the centre of his palm. “This is a safflower.”

“Safflower. Right. But it’s a flower,” Hiromasa said. “It’s not a woman.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Seimei tossed the safflower into the air. The blossom tumbled and spun through the evening sunlight, and transformed back into the young woman. Safflower laughed, her cheeks flushed a charming rosy colour and her hair and robes billowing around her as if she’d just jumped from a height.

Hiromasa whimpered. “The woman is a flower is a woman?”

Seimei chuckled. “She is a shikigami, like all of the women of this household. Minor deities who inhabit the world around us, shikigami choose whether or not to interact with humans. They will occasionally—if asked nicely—agree to serve a yin yang master or a priest or a mountain hermit, but they stay only as long as they please and will return to nature whenever they choose to do so.”

Safflower giggled, and Seimei gave her an affectionate look. “They are curious and playful for the most part. I summon them from various objects—paper dolls, flowers, a pattern on a piece of fabric. I like their company. Their presence is soothing. Yes, I like them very much.”

Hiromasa let out a wondering breath. “Amazing. You could fill the entire palace with shikigami—the entire city. How wonderful that would be!”

“It takes effort to give human shape to a shikigami,” Seimei said, amused. “My magic and the shikigami’s own power. I doubt I have the skill and strength necessary to maintain a palace full of shikigami. Besides, someone would notice. Shikigami love conversing with one another but find it hard to remember more than basic vocabulary when talking to a human.”

“I doubt anyone would care,” Hiromasa said, shuffling back to sit beside Seimei. “I mean, they’re so beautiful.”

Seimei snorted. “Some men enjoy actually talking to a woman, you know.”

“Ah?” Hiromasa realised what he’d said and blushed again. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. I just meant—”

“Never mind, Hiromasa. Better that we change the subject.” Seimei nodded to Safflower. “Perhaps a drink would be in order?”

The shikigami bowed and glided away into the shadows.

Still considering all he’d seen and learned, Hiromasa watched as Seimei picked up the comb and pulled the long strands of hair from it. He rubbed the strands together, gathering them into a small ball, then threw the hair into the brazier. A puff of smoke, and the hair turned briefly to flame, the acrid smell staining the air.

Hiromasa frowned. “Why did you do that?”

Seimei slid the comb into his sleeve. “Hair has a powerful magic, one of the most potent types of magic a human can possess. Even a single strand has power. It can bind someone to something, sharing the essence of that person. A single strand of hair can bring life to inanimate objects for a short period of time.” He smiled, running a hand through his hair to catch any loose strands. “Why do you think so many love-gifts involve a lock of hair? It’s not for any romantic reason. It’s all to do with power.”

“Oh.” Hiromasa considered this. “I just thought it was a nice keepsake.”

Seimei chuckled and threw the few loose strands of his hair into the brazier. They sat together, watching the flare as the hair was consumed, and then the coals settled to a gentle glow and the pleasant fragrance of the incense overlaid the harsh smell.

Safflower entered the study carrying a wine-jar and two cups. She gave Hiromasa a dazzling smile as she poured his drink, and he stared at her, seeing her transformation again in his mind’s eye. Though she had been a very pretty flower, he decided he preferred her human form. Any man would. But then he remembered Seimei’s reaction, the way he’d stated that the shikigami were his companions rather than concubines, and Hiromasa wondered, and drank his wine, and wondered some more.

When the wine had blunted the edge of his sensibility, he looked at Seimei and said, “Why are you helping me?”

“Why, indeed.” Seimei sipped his drink with perfect equanimity. “Because I want to. Because I can.”

“There must be something you want from me in return.”

Silence stretched between them, growing more awkward by the moment. Seimei arched an eyebrow, his expression polite and enquiring. “I believe we’ve had this conversation before, Hiromasa. Are you accusing me of impropriety?”

Hiromasa blushed and dropped his gaze. “No.” Feeling brave, he glanced up, adding in soft, conciliatory tones, “Although—if you wanted... I would not be averse...”

Seimei stood so abruptly that the unfastened sleeves of his hunting costume swung out and knocked over his cup, spilling wine across the floor. His face pale, his eyes sharp with anger, he stared at Hiromasa. “No. It’s not like that. I don’t—I... Can’t a man have friends?”

“Friend...?” Hiromasa gazed at him, horrified by the mistake.

Seimei spun around and walked away, his back stiff and his head held high.

Hiromasa struggled to get up, but the wine and his mortification had made his legs weak. “Seimei!” he called. “I’m sorry—Seimei, please come back!”

The study door slid shut, and Hiromasa was alone.

* * *

Another restless night followed, but this time Hiromasa spent most of it wondering if he should force an apology on Seimei. He decided against it, thinking that if Seimei was angry with him, then there was a high probability that Seimei might turn him into a toad or a slug or some other such slimy, worthless creature.

He fell asleep worrying and woke with gritty eyes and a headache when Willow pulled up the blinds and let a stream of sunshine into his room. Hiromasa mumbled and burrowed beneath his robes.

Willow served him the morning rice and prepared his clothes for the day, all the while keeping up a pleasant stream of chatter. Her happy mood was infectious, and by the time he’d finished his breakfast and submitted to her critical appraisal of his outfit, Hiromasa’s spirits had lifted.

“Where is Seimei?” he asked when he entered the reception hall and found the ox-cart waiting.

Willow lifted her shoulders. “Not here. Perhaps at palace.”

“Why didn’t he wake me earlier?” Hiromasa tried not to feel disappointed. “I thought—I was hoping... But perhaps he didn’t want to disturb me. Perhaps he had a very early engagement. Seimei is very thoughtful.”

Willow nodded, her face downcast. “Seimei is very thoughtful.” She paused, raised her gaze. “He likes you, Lord Hiromasa. Be patient with him. He is...” Another pause, and Willow’s brow furrowed, her hands fluttering as if she couldn’t find the correct words. “He is like us.”

“Like shikigami?”

She smiled. “Yes. You understand.”

Hiromasa wasn’t sure he did understand, but he had no intention of revealing his ignorance to Willow. He thanked her, clambered into the ox-cart, and for the duration of the journey to the palace he pondered on what she’d said. He thought back over what Seimei had told him yesterday about shikigami, but the only thing that came to mind—apart from being able to summon them from flowers—was Seimei saying that shikigami only stayed with him as long as they wanted to stay.

The ox-cart listed as it turned a corner. Hiromasa brooded. Was Willow telling him not to get involved because Seimei had no intention of committing to just one person? Or was she actually saying that Seimei was a shikigami himself? Like us, she’d said. So Seimei wasn’t a shikigami, he was something else. But if Willow had been trying to warn him, why had she asked him to be patient?

It didn’t make sense, no matter which way he looked at it. Hiromasa’s headache returned, and he sank into befuddlement.

The ox-cart stopped at the Yuhou Gate. He got out and strolled past the guards, who acknowledged him with a nod. He hadn’t planned anything for today except calling on a few more of his father’s acquaintances at the palace. The junior captain of the Left Guards who’d helped him yesterday had been a friendly sort. Perhaps he could prevail upon the captain to introduce him to more of the right sort of people. Or, Hiromasa thought as he caught sight of the drum tower rising above a green-tiled roof, perhaps he could call on Seimei at the Bureau of Divination.

Yes, he would visit Seimei. He would see for himself what a yin yang master did, and he would coax Seimei out of the office and they would enjoy a nice lunch together—not that Hiromasa knew where they’d go, but that was a minor detail—and then Hiromasa could apologise for last night’s misunderstanding.

Before he could get very far, a figure detached itself from the shadows of the veranda of the Ministry for the Sovereign’s Household and hurried towards him, calling his name in delighted and over-loud tones. Hiromasa slowed, recognising his cousin. He had enough time to arrange his features into an agreeable expression and bowed. “Lord Tonaga, how marvellous to see you again.”

“My dear young cousin!” Tonaga made great show of embracing him, and Hiromasa tried not to breathe in the heavy musk and sandalwood perfume that didn’t quite hide the odour of stale sweat. “I hear you’ve made the acquaintance of the Secretary Controller and a number of your father’s other friends. A wise decision, cousin, but I can be of more assistance to you than those gentlemen.”

Hiromasa kept the smile on his face. “Oh?”

“Indeed, for I am the bearer of wonderful news!” Tonaga linked arms with Hiromasa and drew him along the avenue away from the Bureau of Divination. “Just this morning I had a conversation with my very good friend the Senior Captain of the Emperor’s Chamber, telling him all about you—my long-lost cousin from the provinces fortunate to have come into unexpected wealth here in the capital, but sadly without rank or position, and I said to my friend what a shame it was that you had good blood, good breeding, excellent connections, and yet no position at court.”

Hiromasa remained silent, the smile hurting his face.

“So,” Tonaga said, looking smug, “my friend the Senior Captain just happened to mention that a position has opened up amongst the guards who care for the imperial falcons. I can’t imagine this is a job that requires any very detailed knowledge of anything, really, except feeding a few scraps to the birds. In my opinion it sounds ideal for a man such as yourself, raised in the provinces amongst wild animals.”

The smile had become a rictus now. Hiromasa made a noise that he hoped sounded like affirmation or interest or some such thing. He couldn’t afford to alienate Tonaga just because his cousin was insulting him in one breath and offering him the chance of a future at court with the next.

“If you impress the Senior Captain—and please don’t worry, I have put in a good word for you—you’ll get the position.” Tonaga gave him a triumphant, self-satisfied smirk, then waved a hand dismissively. “Now, now, don’t thank me, cousin! It’s only a junior sixth rank posting, far below what your family and connections demand, but considering your father’s shameful exile, it’s better than nothing. The position comes with a stipend—a mere trifle, but with the inheritance you discovered yesterday I can’t imagine you would require much extra, not with your country tastes—but more importantly, you’ll receive a room at the palace.”

“I can’t believe it,” Hiromasa said, dizzy with happiness despite the slights against his background. “You are so generous, cousin. Thank you for your assistance and advice.” He bowed in gratitude, and Tonaga gave a careless laugh. An unworthy thought crossed Hiromasa’s mind—why is he helping you, when only a few days ago he threw you onto the street?—but he supposed the answer was plain enough. Tonaga thought he was wealthy now. Hiromasa wished he hadn’t told that lie yesterday. Then he remembered the I Ching reading in which Seimei had told him to seek alliances. Surely the best alliance he could make was with the most senior member of his family.

Convinced that Tonaga’s change of heart was mostly well-intentioned, Hiromasa walked with his cousin to the west of the greater palace, where Tonaga introduced him to Senior Captain Kiyomi, a squat man with a face resembling carved stone.

“I’ll be back in a little while,” Tonaga promised, his gaze straying past Hiromasa towards a group of gentlewomen. “Do excuse me.”

Kiyomi looked Hiromasa up and down. “Lord Tonaga said you’re from Musashi.”


A slight smile cracked the stern features. “My wife’s father is from Musashi. He served as the Audit Commissioner for Fuchu. He knew your father, my lord. Of course the distance between their ranks was too great for anything more than a casual acquaintance, but nonetheless my father-in-law admired Former Prince Katsuakira.”

Hiromasa dropped his gaze, overwhelmed for a moment. “Thank you.”

Kiyomi clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on. Did Lord Tonaga tell you about the position? It’s more than merely ceremonial. You should meet the falcons. If the birds take to you and vice versa, you’ll do well here. You can’t just toss dead rabbits at them and hope for the best. You have to care for the birds, love them, appreciate them...”

They went through a hall and out into a large courtyard surrounded by long, low buildings. Kiyomi called out, and a guard stepped from one of the mews with a peregrine falcon on his padded wrist. The guard flung the bird skyward, and the peregrine took off, silver bells ringing from scarlet jesses. Hiromasa shaded his eyes with his hands to follow the bird’s flight, admiring its speed and grace.

A flock of pigeons lifted from one of the palace roofs, the birds wheeling in fright at the presence of a predator. The peregrine flew high, swung up beyond Hiromasa’s sight. He looked for it, and the guard pointed. Hiromasa caught his breath as the falcon folded its wings and dropped like a stone. It fell in amongst the flock, tipping its wings to angle its flight, and snatched a pigeon. The force of the strike carried both birds out of eyesight, and Hiromasa imagined the falcon on another rooftop or the ground, the pigeon pinned beneath its talons.

Kiyomi watched his reaction. “We exercise the birds outside every couple of days on strict rotation. His Majesty the Emperor has dozens of hawks, some more favoured than others, but we treat them all equally. We also care for the falcons of His Eminence the Former Emperor Yozei. They’re housed over there.” He indicated a smaller mews to the south of the courtyard. “But let me introduce you to your main charges, His Majesty the Emperor’s prized birds.”

He led the way towards the mews to the north, pausing a moment to talk to the guard who’d held the peregrine. Kiyomi indicated for Hiromasa to go on ahead, and he stepped into the building, blinking at the change in light. Set out like a stables, each area was divided from the next by a half-length wooden wall. Birds sat on perches or wandered on the beaten earth floor, or nestled amongst branches placed to resemble a natural habitat. Each bird wore bells and jesses and were attached to a creance long enough that they could take some exercise within their individual areas.

Hiromasa moved between the mews slowly, taking care not to startle the birds. Some were hooded and appeared to be sleeping, but others were awake, staring at their surroundings with bright eyes. He paused to admire a gyrfalcon, only looking around when he heard Kiyomi join him.

“My father owned a pair of gyrfalcons,” Hiromasa said, voice soft with remembrance. “He hunted with them on the Kanto Plain. The female died one winter when I was a child. The male pined for her. One day my father took him out to hunt, and the bird never came back.”

Kiyomi gave him a sympathetic look. “These birds have to come back.”

“Yes.” Hiromasa sighed, and the gyrfalcon rustled its wings. “Sorry,” he said to it, then to Kiyomi, “They’re beautiful.”

“I think so, too.” Kiyomi’s voice was gruff. He nodded that they should carry on walking, and they continued at a slow pace. “We feed them, exercise them, groom them, talk to them, sing to them... whatever’s necessary to keep them happy. Every bird has its own unique personality. You’ll learn to tolerate the bad-tempered ones. We each have our favourites, but this here is His Majesty’s most prized bird...”

They stopped in front of a male goshawk, its wings and back the dark grey of thunderclouds, its chest fluffed white and striped with black barring. Haunting golden eyes gazed at them with steady patience.

“Magnificent,” Hiromasa whispered.

The goshawk turned its head and shifted on its perch. Silver bells rang at its feet.

Kiyomi grinned at him. “I’ll start you on the more basic tasks first, cleaning out the mews, feeding the birds, things like that. Let them get to know you. In a couple of weeks I’ll check how good your technique is for flying them, and we can go from there.”

Hiromasa turned to Kiyomi. “You’re giving me the position?”

“You can start next week. The birds like you. He,” a nod at the goshawk, “likes you, and that’s the most important thing.”

After another set of introductions, this time to his new colleagues, Hiromasa left the mews full of excited enthusiasm. He wanted nothing more than to share the news of his good fortune with Seimei, but Tonaga was the one waiting for him on the veranda.

“I knew my word would carry weight with the Senior Captain,” Tonaga said when Hiromasa told him of Kiyomi’s offer. “My heartiest congratulations, cousin. Of course you’ll have to wait until the Court Appointments to officially take the position, but no matter. Your credit and reputation will rise from now on.” He gave Hiromasa a wide, complacent smile.

Not even Tonaga’s smug superiority could dent Hiromasa’s joy. He bowed. “Thank you for recommending me.”

“We are family, Hiromasa!” Tonaga flung an arm around Hiromasa’s shoulders. “Come, let us celebrate. I’ve sent word to my house—a banquet is being prepared for tonight. I want to introduce you to my friends... and I have many pretty daughters who no doubt will be keen to make your acquaintance.”

Startled but pleased by this sudden attention, Hiromasa mumbled his gratitude and allowed his cousin to steer him towards the palace gates. His plans for lunch with Seimei would have to wait.

* * *

The sound of childish laughter roused Hiromasa from his muddled, cyclic thoughts. His head hurt, thumping with all the ferocity of a drum during an imperial procession, and the sour taste of wine lingered in his mouth. For all his fine clothes, he felt as unkempt as when he’d first arrived in the capital.

Outside, Lord Tonaga’s youngest children shrieked and chased one another around the garden. The cries pierced Hiromasa’s head and he groaned, rubbing at his temples as if he could alleviate the pain. Around him, several other guests slept off the excesses of last night. He recognised the Senior Assistant Minister of Popular Affairs and the Chief of the Bureau of Palace Storehouses as well as a number of gentlemen from the Ministry of War. The hall stank of wine and sweat and other unpleasant odours, and Hiromasa dragged himself to his feet, pulled on his cloak, and made his way out onto the veranda.

The sunlight hurt his eyes. He went to a bridgeway and leaned on the railing, staring into the garden stream. The children ignored him, but their nurse and a couple of maids hid behind their sleeves and sent him coy looks, giggling to one another. Hiromasa hoped he hadn’t made a fool of himself by flirting with any of Tonaga’s household women. He hoped he hadn’t flirted with Tonaga’s daughters, either. He had a vague recollection of the daughters seated behind a screen during the early part of the evening, and he recalled an embarrassing attempt at gallantry, but after that his memory became confused.

The banquet Hiromasa had thought was being held in his honour had turned out to be a birthday celebration for one of Tonaga’s sons. Hiromasa told himself the occasion wasn’t as important as the chance to meet influential men, so when Tonaga’s son rudely demanded a gift, Hiromasa had taken off his dark violet damask top-robe and given it to the young man. Of course this meant Hiromasa was woefully underdressed for the rest of the festivities, which only served to emphasise his rustic background.

Not that it mattered; once the guests had started on the second round of drinking, they forgot to make pointed comments about countrified gentlemen and called for music and song. Hiromasa seized the opportunity. Producing Ha Futatsu, he played several popular court tunes and finished with the melody he’d composed at Seimei’s house. Everyone praised his talent and plied him with drinks. Though the attention was welcome, Hiromasa was also bewildered by it. Less than a week ago he’d been a nobody, and now he was part of the celebrations of the most senior member of his family.

When the hour of the Sheep came to a close, Hiromasa had tried to leave. Tonaga insisted that he stayed. Thinking of Seimei and the shikigami waiting for him, Hiromasa repeated his wish to go home.

Tonaga looked at him with polite amazement. “This is your home!”

“But...” Hiromasa wavered. The other guests cried for him to stay, called on him to play the flute again. Unable to disappoint anyone, Hiromasa accepted another cup of wine and decided to stay a little longer. “But after the hour of Monkey, I’m going home.”

So much for that. Hiromasa couldn’t even remember reaching the middle of the hour of the Monkey. He closed his eyes against the glare of the sun reflected from the stream and drooped against the railing. What must Seimei think of him?

Guilt gnawed at him. He hadn’t seen Seimei at all, not even the slightest glimpse, since that embarrassing misunderstanding two nights ago. Hiromasa bit his lip. He was a bad house-guest and an even worse friend. He should at least have sent Seimei a note explaining his whereabouts last night. The shikigami would have been worried. He hated the thought of causing them even the smallest concern.

He stood straight and breathed deeply to clear his head. Today was the rest day. It was still early. Perhaps if he left now, he could be back at Seimei’s estate before the household woke up.

Hiromasa went in search of his cousin. Tonaga was still asleep, so Hiromasa wrote a short letter of thanks before he left. No one offered to find him a carriage or suggested that he borrowed a horse, so Hiromasa began the journey across the city on foot. The morning was fresh, the sun pleasant on his back, and the walk cleared away the cobwebs of his hangover. He took out Ha Futatsu and played a jaunty tune as he went, earning himself a sweet roll and an orange for his breakfast from an appreciative maidservant sweeping outside the gate of another household.

His fingers sticky with juice, the hems of his under-robes dusty from his trek, feeling a little hot and damp with effort, Hiromasa made his way up Omiya Avenue. The palace loomed alongside of him to the left, and he was about to turn onto Nijo Avenue when he spotted a familiar undecorated ox-cart drawing up outside the Taiken Gate.

“Seimei!” Hiromasa picked up his skirts and ran, careless of the sight he must present to the guards at the gate.

Seimei paused, a paper bag held in one hand, his face devoid of expression. He didn’t even return Hiromasa’s beaming smile, but was good enough to linger outside the gate a moment longer while Hiromasa caught his breath and mopped his brow with a sleeve. Stiff and formal, Seimei fixed his gaze on a distant point down Omiya Avenue and said, “I heard about your appointment as an imperial falconer. Congratulations.”

Hiromasa winced, guilt twisting more painfully than the stitch in his side. “I wanted to apologise. Not just for last night, but for the night before that.”

Seimei looked at him with mild curiosity. “Indeed.” The word held all the warmth of a late autumn breeze. “Walk with me, Lord Hiromasa.”

Hiromasa followed him through the Taiken Gate. Seimei walked at a brisk pace. Hiromasa trotted alongside, marshalling the words of his apology. “I’m sorry I didn’t send a letter to excuse myself last night. My cousin insisted that I go to his house for a banquet, and he had terrible wine and important guests, and I played Ha Futatsu for them, and then there was more of the wine, and it really was very bad wine...”

He risked a glance at Seimei and saw a flicker of amusement. Encouraged, Hiromasa continued, “I tried to leave, but Tonaga told me to stay. It was a boring party with the worst wine I’ve ever tasted, and I’m very sorry, Seimei. I suffered a lot, so please don’t be too angry with me.”

Seimei turned his head, ostensibly to cough into his sleeve, but it sounded suspiciously like stifled laughter.

Hiromasa moved closer. “And I’m sorry for the night before. For implying—for, uh... for throwing myself at you.”

Mirth fully under control now, Seimei raised an eyebrow at him.

Some of Hiromasa’s confidence ebbed away. He lowered his voice and dropped the flippancy for seriousness. “I didn’t want to seem gauche and provincial with you. I wanted to impress you. I wanted...” He exhaled, took another breath and rushed on: “You’re older and wiser and I feel like I have nothing to offer you in exchange for all your kindness.”

Seimei gave a disdainful sniff but slowed his footsteps. “Why should it need to be about exchange?”

Hiromasa lifted his hands in a helpless gesture. “Because that is the way of things. Even in Musashi, but especially so here. Unless,” he added, an unwelcome thought occurring to him, “unless you’re a monk.”

Seimei chuckled. “I am not a monk.”

“Good. I mean... good.” Hiromasa blushed and tucked his hands into his sleeves. “I want to offer you more than music.”

“Your friendship is enough.”

Hiromasa looked at him, held his gaze. “Not for me.”

Seimei’s lips parted. He took a deep breath and turned his head, lashes sweeping down to hide his eyes. The faintest trace of colour touched his cheeks and then leached away. “I...” He stopped, looked into Hiromasa’s eyes. Smiled. “I am going to visit His Eminence Former Emperor Yozei. Would you care to accompany me?”

“Ah?” Hiromasa found himself leaning forward, snared by the golden gleam of Seimei’s eyes. Gold? Hiromasa blinked, shook his head. His thoughts felt a little fuzzy, then they snapped back into focus. “Seimei. Don’t change the subject. I’m trying to apologise and tell you how I feel at the same time, and that’s difficult. I should be doing it with poetry and long elegant letters, not standing in a palace courtyard like a fool.”

Seimei drew back, looking at him in surprise. “How intriguing.”

“Intriguing? I can think of many ways to describe this situation, but—” The words froze in Hiromasa’s throat as Seimei came close and touched him, put long fingers to one side of his face and held him steady.

“Look at me,” Seimei said softly, commanding. “Look into my eyes.”

Hiromasa stared at him. Another glint of gold. A tickle at his senses, a clouding of his thoughts. He made a disgruntled sound and looked away, an odd disquiet dropping from him and fading. Glancing back, he saw Seimei staring at him in disbelief.

“What? What is it?” Hiromasa lifted a hand to check his court cap was still on correctly. “Seimei, what did I do?”

Seimei clutched his bag to the front of his dress cloak, crumpling the paper against the black silk. He looked distracted, frowning in confusion. “You should never look a fox directly in the eyes. They have the power to make you forget.”

It seemed a funny thing to say. Hiromasa laughed. “I promise I won’t look into the eyes of any foxes I might encounter. Which is unlikely, but since you—” He stopped, realisation biting. “Seimei. Do half-foxes have the same power?”

“Yes.” The answer was nothing more than a breath.

Hiromasa gazed at him. “So you really are—”

Seimei closed his eyes for a brief moment. “Yes.”

“Did you—” Hiromasa hesitated, uncertain as to whether he’d just imagined the last few moments, “did you just try to make me forget?”

“Yes.” Colour blazed across Seimei’s face. He looked up, expression caught between contrite and embarrassed. “I’m sorry, Hiromasa. I shouldn’t have done that. Shouldn’t have even tried it. It was wrong.”

Now Hiromasa was curious. “It didn’t work, did it?”

“No.” Seimei stood rigid with tension but managed a self-mocking smile. “And I don’t know why. You must be immune to me.”

Hiromasa gave him a cheerful grin. “But that’s good, right? At least you know my attraction for you is genuine and not based on fox-magic.”

Seimei made a strangled noise that Hiromasa interpreted as agreement. He clapped his hands together. “Well, then—if the invitation to visit His Eminence the Former Emperor Yozei still stands, I would be delighted to accompany you.”

They resumed walking, Seimei looking slightly dazed. Hiromasa kept up the conversation. “Some of the hawks in my care belong to His Eminence. I’d be glad of the opportunity to discuss the birds with him... although I believe my mode of dress is far too casual for an appointment with a Former Emperor.”

“His Eminence will not care.” Seimei cast a sidelong look at Hiromasa’s pale grey and white under-robes beneath the black court cloak. “What happened to the violet damask?”

“I was obliged to give it as a birthday gift to Tonaga’s son last night. The young man is insufferable. My only consolation is that the colour makes him look sallow and much older than his years.”

“A minor victory,” said Seimei, his smile restored, “but no less pleasing. This way, Hiromasa—it will not do to keep His Eminence waiting.”

* * *

Seimei had recovered his equilibrium by the time they arrived at the side-palace inhabited by Yozei. Tucked away at the back of the internal palace complex, Yozei was accorded the respect due to his position but also kept far from the centre of power. The palace was walled with a high fence that offered only glimpses of the building within, and the single gateway was festooned with spells and inscribed with Buddhist sutras.

The guards on duty outside the gate retreated a safe distance when Seimei began checking the wooden taboo tags and taking down the paper spells, replacing them with fresh ones from inside the bag. When all the spells had been exchanged, he signalled the guards. They went inside a hut and brought out a brazier, set it in front of Seimei, and backed away again. Seimei deposited the paper bag and its contents on the brazier and stood patiently while it burned, the flames leaping up with sudden, violent heat.

Looking between the nervous guards and Seimei’s serene expression, Hiromasa watched the ritual with amazement. “Why all these precautions? I remember there was some old scandal about His Eminence being unsound in mind, but that was a very long time ago. Surely all this effort is excessive?”

“Excessive.” Seimei’s lips twitched into a smile. When the bag and the spells had been reduced to ash, he turned from the brazier and unlatched the heavy gate. He gave Hiromasa a brief, amused look. “Former Emperor Yozei is a murderer.”

The idea of speaking to His Eminence suddenly lost its appeal. Hiromasa remained rooted to the ground on the safe side of the threshold. “What?”

“He killed people for sport,” Seimei said, and stepped through the gate, holding it open. “Are you coming?”

“Ah.” Hiromasa tried to think of a believable excuse. Nothing came to mind, and he couldn’t disappoint Seimei again. Taking a deep breath and screwing up his courage, Hiromasa hopped over the threshold and into the Former Emperor’s palace garden. He squashed himself behind Seimei and looked around, expecting to see signs of evil—dead trees, perhaps, or dozens of crows cawing from the verandas, or a stream running red with blood, but he saw nothing more sinister than a couple of elderly servants having a slow conversation as they leaned on their spades over a flowerbed.

It all seemed rather normal. Hiromasa leaned closer to Seimei and whispered, “How many people did His Eminence murder?”

“Dozens.” Seimei kept his tone neutral, his features settled into a radiant calm. They walked through the garden towards the main hall. “It’s impossible to know how many, exactly. He doesn’t always recall what he did—what he does—during his attacks of madness.”

Hiromasa swallowed. “Then he really is insane.”

“Sometimes, yes.”

“I’m not afraid,” Hiromasa said.

Seimei stopped and looked at him, expression serious. “It’s not a question of fear, but of understanding.” He exhaled, laid a hand on Hiromasa’s arm. “His Eminence developed a taste for killing at a young age. At first he pitted animals against one another, but once he became emperor he realised he had access to greater power. He took pleasure in watching executions and devised new methods of killing criminals. It wasn’t enough. He started killing innocents—pageboys, maidservants, gentlewomen, his retainers. Imagine it, Hiromasa: the Emperor, divinely sanctioned, a living god, committing the most vile and unforgiveable sins.”

Horror and pity rose inside Hiromasa. “I never knew such terrible things had happened.”

“The full details were kept from most of the court. The Great Ministers of the time took action to prevent more deaths. They removed His Eminence from the throne by force, and for a while the shock of it seemed to calm his madness. But then the killings began again.” Seimei shifted his gaze towards the hall. “He is guarded at all times. Only in exceptional circumstances is he permitted to leave this enclosure. His Eminence will never be free of his pollution, but the irony is that with every death he caused, his own life has lengthened by the span of a year.”

“So horrible!” Hiromasa put a hand to his mouth and shuddered. “Why must you attend on him? Can’t another yin yang master do it?”

Seimei’s smile was sad. “He is my friend. I do this gladly.”

“Your—” Hiromasa stared after him as Seimei continued towards the main hall. “Seimei! Wait for me.” He ran to catch up, not wanting to be left alone in the palace grounds. “Seimei. Maybe His Eminence wouldn’t be interested in talking to someone like me. Maybe I should just go home and—”

He broke off when a small, elderly man shuffled out onto the veranda and peered at them. The old man wore white, but not even the thick layered silks could disguise the bird-like slenderness of his build. His hair was white, a dry, crackling halo cut short around his head. His mouth was a thin gash, his nose hooked, and his eyes glittered like chips of polished obsidian.

Seimei bowed. Hiromasa followed his example, a frisson of anxious fright creeping up his spine. When they straightened, Hiromasa fought the urge to shrink back beneath the intensity of Yozei’s gaze.

“Who’s this?” Yozei’s attention turned to Seimei. “He’s not a doctor, is he? I hate doctors. I told them to poison the last doctor who bothered me. Don’t suppose they did. Guardsmen these days have no balls.” The Former Emperor stared at Hiromasa. “Do you have balls, son?”

Hiromasa’s mouth dropped open. Conscious of how undignified he must look, he hurried to respond. “Ah, yes, Your Eminence. And no, I am not a doctor.”

“Delighted to hear it. Seimei, answer the damn question. Who is he?”

Seimei bowed again. “Your Eminence, allow me to present Minamoto no Hiromasa, late of Musashi and as of yesterday appointed as an imperial falconer. He is also your great-grandnephew, the son of Former Prince Katsuakira.”

“Katsuakira? The boy who got himself exiled?” Yozei cackled, revealing several missing teeth. “Punished for some nonsense over that conniving Sugawara minister, as I recall. Exiled before he could defend himself. He’d have only made it worse if he had talked, though. Good-looking boy but stupid and gullible. Suppose that’s why the Sugawara supporters picked him. High-ranking and as stupid as a block of wood.”

Hiromasa blinked, appalled by Yozei’s bluntness but also recognising the truth of the old man’s words. His father had been an expert archer and a competent musician, but those were his only real accomplishments.

“What are you waiting for? Come up here. Can’t be doing standing about in the cold. Toxic fumes might get me. I can see them, you know.” Yozei did a slow turnabout on one foot and shambled indoors, white robes dragging behind him.

Seimei sprang up the steps onto the veranda, Hiromasa trailing in his wake. They entered the main hall, which was bare of any decoration but white standing curtains and white-painted lattice screens. Yozei came to a halt in the middle of the room and stared absently at a spot on the far wall.

“Katsuakira,” he said after a moment, his voice musing. “Always had some sympathy for him. Made a scapegoat, he was. His damn family. My damn family.” He tutted. “Still, doesn’t change the fact that he was stupid. I’ve encountered pheasants with more sense.”

“Hiromasa is unlike his father,” Seimei said. “Except in looks, of course.”

Yozei snorted. “Of course you would notice that.”

Seimei’s eyes flashed, half in amusement, half in warning. “I notice many things.”

“Don’t give me that.” Yozei jabbed a finger at him. “You like them pretty and stupid. You can’t stand it when they ask questions. The only reason you answer my questions is because I’m a Former Emperor and if you didn’t answer me, I’d have you strangled to death in the main courtyard.”

A peaceable smile curved Seimei’s lips. “I answer your questions because I like you, Your Eminence.”

“You’re the only person who does.” Yozei shuffled past, patting Seimei on the shoulder. “The only person who’ll risk so much pollution to sit and chat with me week after week. Not even the Buddhist priests dare speak to me directly, you know.”

Seimei nodded, turning to follow the Former Emperor through into a study overlooking an empty, gravelled courtyard. “I know.”

Yozei lifted his hands. “Thus I’m denied the only thing that retired emperors can ever really look forwards to—a luxurious cloistered life in a monastery. They won’t even let me go off to some nice hermitage in the mountains. I loved those mountains when I was emperor. I could hide for days, hunting boar and slaughtering deer—how the Great Ministers wept whenever they found me slicing open a pretty little sika! Ah, yes, those were the good old days. How I would love to live in the mountains again.”

“We’ve discussed this before, Your Eminence.” Seimei spoke firmly. “There are wilder things than you in the mountains. If you were to chance upon one of them...”

Yozei sighed. “Yes, yes, I would turn into a demon and destroy the capital. Though that does sound like fun.”

“Not for me.” Seimei gave Yozei a stern look. “I would have to kill you.”

Yozei grinned, and suddenly there was real malice in his expression. “Not if I killed you first, Abe no Seimei.”

Tension snapped between them, Seimei still and poised, Yozei with an unholy gleam in his eyes. Alarmed, Hiromasa stepped forward, offering himself as a distraction. He bowed again when Yozei looked at him. “Your Eminence, as Lord Seimei just told you, I have recently had the honour of being appointed to the position of imperial falconer. I met with Senior Captain Kiyomi yesterday and had the privilege of being introduced to His Majesty’s birds. I understand part of my duties will also be to care for Your Eminence’s birds. I had hoped for the chance to discuss your hawks with Your Eminence, so I can endeavour to give them the best possible care and attention.”

Yozei seated himself on a cushioned dais. “My hawks.” Pride blazed in his features. “My birds are superior to the Emperor’s creatures. I suppose Kiyomi didn’t let you set foot in my mews, did he?”

“No, Your Eminence.” Hiromasa and Seimei knelt on the floor a respectful distance from Yozei.

“Good. I don’t like my birds disturbed. Don’t like the thought of them getting too accustomed to their handlers. Hawks aren’t pets. They’re killers. Coddle them like children and they become soft. Have you ever seen a wild hawk hunt? They’re cruel. Vicious. Captive hawks should be trained as if they’re still wild.”

Hiromasa nodded. “Thank you for your guidance, Your Eminence.”

“Haven’t finished, boy!” Yozei rapped on the dais with his bony knuckles. An ancient manservant entered. “Send a message to the Senior Captain of the Emperor’s Chamber. I want my birds brought here at once.”

The servant bowed and went off without a sound.

“Kiyomi hates taking out my birds. They bite.” Yozei cackled. “They try to peck out the eyes of their handlers. Taught them how to do it myself.”

Hiromasa flicked Seimei a worried glance, but Seimei seemed unperturbed by the conversation.

Yozei settled into the cushions. “Tell me, Seimei, did you ever find out the truth of that matter with the Lady of Sewing and that Clothing Attendant?”

“Indeed I did, Your Eminence...”

Hiromasa sat forgotten for the next quarter hour while Seimei passed on titbits of gossip interspersed with the latest decisions of ministers both great and small, along with reports from the provinces and the occasional item of news from around the capital. Yozei showed a lively interest, asking questions and venturing opinions, and seemed very much like an ordinary man.

His attention wandering, Hiromasa glanced around the room. It looked like any other study belonging to a nobleman... except for the scratches gouged into the floor. Hiromasa stared, his heart pounding and his breath hitching. An effort had been made to polish over the scratches, but there they remained. Not animal scratches, either. Hiromasa swallowed his queasiness and tried to turn his attention back to Seimei’s light, inconsequential chatter.

The elderly servant reappeared and murmured that the birds had arrived. Yozei sat up straight, his eyes bright with eagerness, and gave orders that the handlers should come through to the courtyard. He rocked with laughter as five of Hiromasa’s colleagues trooped into the square, their arms held stiff, each with a bird clutched tight to their wrists. Two of the men had blood drying on their faces, their foreheads and cheeks scored red by talons and bruised by pecks.

Hiromasa exchanged looks with his colleagues, who all wore expressions of glum resignation. They bowed, keeping the hawks lifted high.

Yozei chuckled. “My beautiful birds.” He gestured for Hiromasa to rise. “Go, look at them. Study them at your leisure.”

Hiromasa got to his feet and went down into the courtyard. A sparrowhawk at the end of the line screeched and tried to launch itself from its handler’s wrist. The creance attached to its jesses prevented it from moving far, and the bird dropped down, wings beating, shrieking in anger as it tried to right itself.

Its cries disturbed the other birds, three peregrines and a merlin, which turned their heads and regarded the sparrowhawk. One peregrine fluffed its feathers and settled its wings. The merlin opened its beak and gaped. The two other peregrines uttered sharp, annoyed sounds, one dancing along its handler’s arm and snapping.

Keeping his movements calm and non-threatening, Hiromasa went closer. He admired the birds’ plumage, comparing them with His Majesty’s hawks. Yozei’s birds were leaner, which made them appear more eager to fly and hunt. The peregrines especially seemed more handsome than the Emperor’s falcons.

The sparrowhawk screeched again and righted itself. Now it ducked its head, still flapping its wings, and jabbed its beak at its handler’s wrist. The man remained blank-faced, his flesh protected by a thick layer of rolled fabric. Frustrated, the sparrowhawk tore at the cloth, attacking its blue jesses until the silver bells jangled in discord. It creeled, beak flashing again and again, and began to gnaw at its own leg.

Horrified by the bird’s distress, Hiromasa moved to prevent it. The sparrowhawk reared up and snatched at him, almost biting his finger. It stooped, wings raised in threat, then resumed attacking its leg. Hiromasa looked at its handler, who kept his gaze fixed ahead of him. No help there. Concerned for the bird’s well-being, Hiromasa fumbled in his cloak and drew out Ha Futatsu. Perhaps a tune would distract the sparrowhawk. He set the flute to his lips and began to play.

The bird squawked, lifted its head. Its eyes shone. Hiromasa continued to play, summoning tunes from memory, balancing soothing melodies with more jaunty rhythms. The sparrowhawk bobbed its head, creeled again, then settled with a final flick of its wings. Hiromasa carried on playing, conscious of all five birds watching him. They seemed to enjoy his performance, their luminous eyes turned in his direction as he walked back and forth along the line of handlers.

By the time he’d finished playing, one of the peregrines had fallen asleep. The other birds sat quiet and docile. The handlers’ expressions were masks of pleased surprise, and even Yozei looked delighted.

“Take them back to their mews,” he ordered. “Get Kiyomi to take a look at the sparrowhawk’s leg. He shouldn’t be so hungry or angry that he needs to gnaw at himself like that. See to it, or I’ll have your head. You, Hiromasa—good thinking. Heard that His Majesty’s birds don’t mind their handlers singing to them now and then. Always thought it was a stupid idea, but that flute seems to work. Don’t need my birds to be vicious all the time, not with themselves or each other, anyway. I want you to take extra special care of my hawks, understand? Play to them every day when you’re on duty.”

Hiromasa bowed. “Yes, Your Eminence.”

After the birds and their handlers left, Yozei’s mood seemed to dip. He resumed his conversation with Seimei, but started to lose track of his words. He spent longer staring at the courtyard, and Hiromasa began to feel awkward. Seimei’s composure remained untroubled, but his gaze was watchful. At length Seimei rose to his feet and approached the Former Emperor’s dais.

“Your Eminence, I believe it’s time.”

Yozei huddled in his robes. “What? Go away.”

“Your Eminence...” Seimei moved nearer, and Yozei lashed out.

Hiromasa gasped, starting to his feet, but Seimei drew back and avoided Yozei’s wild, flailing attack. The Former Emperor unbalanced himself and sprawled on the cushions, panting in distress. He sounded more animal than human, and his fingers were hooked like claws. Hiromasa looked towards the scratch-marks on the floor and realised Yozei must have made them during bouts of his madness.

“Hush,” Seimei murmured, sitting on the dais and laying his hands on Yozei. “Hush, Your Eminence. Let me take the pollution from you.”

Yozei uttered a cry of despair.

Hiromasa jumped when someone tugged at his sleeve. He turned to see the elderly manservant beside him. “Come with me, my lord. It’s better to wait for Lord Seimei elsewhere. His Eminence doesn’t like visitors to witness the exorcisms.”

“Exorcism?” Hiromasa repeated, curious despite himself. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Seimei with one hand on the floor, the other pressing down across Yozei’s back. The Former Emperor was twisted in an unnatural position, eyes bulging, head snapping from side to side. Spittle flew from his mouth and, as Hiromasa watched in horrified fascination, Yozei sank his teeth into one of the cushions.

The servant pulled across a screen to block the view. From the study came the soft, relentless sound of Seimei chanting.

Hiromasa took a breath and exhaled. He walked a few paces then stopped, turning. “How often does this happen?”

The manservant shrugged. “Depends. His Eminence’s mood wanders so often. Sometimes Lord Seimei attends him only once a month; at other times, like now, it’s once a week. When His Eminence is very disturbed, we have orders from His Majesty the Emperor to demand Lord Seimei’s constant presence.”

“It looks exhausting for them both.”

“It is. His Eminence will sleep for the rest of the day and well into tomorrow. As for Lord Seimei, he tends to absent himself from court for some time following an exorcism.” The servant cast a look towards the screen when a thin wail erupted from the study. “We are grateful for Lord Seimei’s intervention. Without him, all of us who reside with His Eminence would be forced to wear taboo tags every time we stepped out of this side-palace. Lord Seimei takes on the burden of sin so we don’t have to share in it.”

The wail crept up, the note sliding higher and louder. Hiromasa winced, put his hands up to cover his ears. The servant looked unconcerned. Suddenly the cry broke off. Silence spread outwards, bringing with it a sense of peace.

“It’s over for now,” the servant said. He bowed to Hiromasa. “Excuse me, my lord. I must attend His Eminence.”

“Of course.” Hiromasa ventured to peer around the screen when the servant hurried to fuss over his unconscious master. He saw Seimei leaning over Yozei, stroking the shock of white hair back from the Former Emperor’s slack features. Seimei said something to the servant then rose, shook out his sleeves, and stepped down from the dais. He left the room without looking back.

“We must leave now,” Seimei said without breaking his pace. “I apologise for His Eminence. Most of the time he’s exceptionally good company.”

Hiromasa hurried after him. They went out into the garden. The gate swung open by itself with such force that wood-splinters were flung into the air. Hiromasa yelped. He looked at Seimei, noticing that beneath the sunlight, Seimei’s eyes had gone completely black. There was an odd stillness to him, as if he was trying to keep Yozei’s polluted energy in check.

The guards outside the side-palace moved away when Seimei and Hiromasa emerged. The gate slammed shut by itself, rattling the taboo tags and paper spells.

“The servant said you do this once a week or more.”

“Yes.” A shade of his old self broke through the blankness, and Seimei gave him a weary smile. “It’s the simplest way to control his madness. Years ago someone suggested poisoning His Eminence, but no one dared to do it. One cannot just kill a divinely-sanctioned emperor, not even when that emperor has been removed from power. It is not for commoners to decide the fate of such a person.”

Hiromasa considered this. “Is His Eminence afflicted by demons?”

Seimei shook his head. “It would make things easier if he were. Demons I can deal with, as could most of my colleagues in the Bureau of Divination. But this is different.” They turned a corner and headed directly across the outer palace grounds towards the Taiken Gate. “Madness can sometimes be holy,” Seimei continued. “There is the possibility that His Eminence is god-touched—that his madness and cruelty serve some other purpose. I don’t know. No one knows. This situation is unprecedented. Until an answer is revealed, I do all I can for him and absorb the excess pollution.”

“How do you get rid of it?” Hiromasa asked.

“Magic. Bathing in running water. Sleeping beneath the full moon.” Seimei’s expression blanked again, and his tone was curt. He seemed to struggle with himself for a moment. “I’m sorry. I will be myself again very soon, I assure you. This rudeness is only temporary.”

“That’s all right.” Hiromasa noticed the way that everyone—from servants to grand nobles—scattered before them, clearing out of their way as if they carried a big black thundercloud with them. Maybe they did, and he just couldn’t see it because he was inside it. The thought was worrying. Hiromasa changed the subject, hoping to distract Seimei. “His Eminence’s hawks are very fine. I shall enjoy working with them. They seemed to like me, or at least they liked Ha Futatsu. I’m so pleased the sparrowhawk responded to the music.”

The guards at Taiken Gate stood aside and let them pass. As soon as they were outside the palace complex, Seimei’s temper seemed to improve. He gave Hiromasa an affectionate look. “Your presence could calm even the most restless spirit.”

Hiromasa slowed to a halt. “Seimei...”

Seimei stopped and faced him. “Until I safely rid myself of His Eminence’s pollution, I am required to live in seclusion. For the next few days I am under a taboo.” He sighed; managed a small smile. “Your new position and rank is a good thing, Hiromasa. If you would prefer to live with Lord Tonaga or in a house of your own, please don’t concern yourself with me.”

“I don’t like Cousin Tonaga’s house,” Hiromasa said. “Perhaps I will take a house sometime in the future, but until then I have a room at the palace. I don’t know where it is but I’m sure someone can tell me. I can stay there and trouble you no more.”

Seimei looked a little hurt. “You don’t trouble me.”

“Do I not?” Hiromasa asked, aware that perhaps his question was too delicate and most certainly ill-timed.

Faint colour washed Seimei’s face. He dropped his gaze.

“You saw an ally for me in the I Ching reading. A partner.” Hiromasa screwed up his courage. “Was it you?”

Expressionless once more, Seimei turned. “Perhaps. Or maybe it was one of Lord Tonaga’s daughters.” He began walking again, picking up speed.

Hiromasa watched him go. “I want it to be you.”

Though he was several feet away, Seimei heard. He paused, tilted his head, and gave Hiromasa a glittering look. “Then what are you waiting for?”

* * *


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 17th, 2011 09:47 am (UTC)
Ok I have to pause here to write a short review before I lose it all from continuous reading.

The scene with the comb was so sensuous, so beautifully played out that I cannot help but to gasp. I think that single-handedly is one of the most sensuous scenes I've read in a long, long time. Something about its simplicity and intimacy just goes 'wham' inside. But I love the contrasting conflict that followed - of how Hiromasa tries to push for an answer to Seimei's affections/treatment and Seimei just thunders off. It feels like smashing a piece of delicate glasswork and feeling the shattered pieces hurting one's skin right after admiring the grooves and texture of the glass by running one's fingertips against it.

Hiromasa's innocence in seduction (or rather, un-seduction) by confessing his feelings after Tonaga's son's birthday party thingamajic was moving -- the way he catches Seimei unaware (eee I had a moment of "EEE~~~!!XD" going on when Seimei just goes speechless), and that moment with Seimei trying to mind-erase Hiromasa (OH YOU FOX AHAHAHAHA) only to find out it doesn't work with Hiromasa... aaaaaah!!!

That said, all the heart-wrenching moments between them aside, I really like the current plot on Yozei and Hiromasa's appointment -- gonna continue with Part 3 now <3
May. 17th, 2011 11:57 am (UTC)
:D Seimei is a dreadful tease. I think he's more curious and aware of his difference and power in this early part of the story, and he starts to become... shyer, maybe, or at least more watchful, as his feelings for Hiromasa deepen and as Hiromasa becomes more blatant in his interest.

It feels like smashing a piece of delicate glasswork and feeling the shattered pieces hurting one's skin right after admiring the grooves and texture of the glass by running one's fingertips against it.

I really like this analogy! Though in a non-serious moment of LOL I was thinking 'it's like being glassed by Adrian Sutil in a Shanghai nightclub!' DOES NOT EXPECT *ahem* is srs again now.

Seimei speechless is a thing of wonder, heheh.
May. 17th, 2011 09:02 pm (UTC)
“No.” Seimei stood rigid with tension but managed a self-mocking smile. “And I don’t know why. You must be immune to me.”

Hiromasa gave him a cheerful grin. “But that’s good, right? At least you know my attraction for you is genuine and not based on fox-magic.”

Seimei made a strangled noise that Hiromasa interpreted as agreement. He clapped his hands together. “Well, then—if the invitation to visit His Eminence the Former Emperor Yozei still stands, I would be delighted to accompany you.”


May. 18th, 2011 06:45 am (UTC)
May. 18th, 2011 09:17 pm (UTC)
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