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The Curse of Kuwana

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Hiromasa woke to a strange, prickling silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's the haunted kin." The old monk who'd greeted him earlier spoke again.

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

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

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

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

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

"The murders."

"Murders," Hiromasa repeated, not sure if he'd heard correctly. "What murders?"

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

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

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

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

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

The monk pursed his lips. "That's a more comforting theory. Talk of demons scares the novices."

Seimei smiled a little.

Hiromasa looked at the monk. "There's no pattern to these killings?"

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

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

"Before the rains," the monk replied. "Always before the rains."

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

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

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

"What's it called?" Hiromasa asked, the monk echoing the query a moment later.

Seimei didn't reply.

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

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

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

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

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

The music stopped.

"Ah," said Seimei, and he stepped inside the storeroom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seimei arched his eyebrows. "You forbid me?"

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

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

Hiromasa nodded, pleased. "Good."

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"If you say so, lord."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiromasa wrinkled his nose and took another sip of wine.

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

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

"Tell me more," Hiromasa invited.

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

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

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

"You found no trace of her?" Hiromasa prompted.

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

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

The merchant gave him a look of disbelief. "Of course there's a connection!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The merchant nodded. "The middle of the hour of the Tiger."

"Four hours ago," Hiromasa murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fresh wash of colour touched Seimei's face. "No."

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

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

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

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

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

"Why not?"

"They're other people's prayers. Handling them makes you responsible for them, and you're not a god."

"Oh." Hiromasa gazed with trepidation at the handful of amulets he'd collected. "I'll put them back."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seimei looked towards the kin, his expression thoughtful. "It's not random. Not entirely."

Hiromasa stared. "What?"

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

"What is it?"

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

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

"No."

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

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

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

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

"I can?"

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

Hiromasa grunted. "A distraction."

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

"By playing a haunted kin?"

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Hiromasa went towards him. "What are you looking at?"

Seimei smiled. "The wind."

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The world has many wonders, Hiromasa, and many oddities."

"But surely... how does a bird become a weed?"

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

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

"Soon." Seimei fixed his gaze on the empty horizon. "Soon."

* * *

Hiromasa passed a restless night in the monastery, all too aware of Seimei curled asleep on the far side of the room. After the incident in the meadow, they'd spoken only of banalities, a stiff formality creeping into their usual easiness. Hiromasa lay on his bedroll and searched his mind for the appropriate words to reassure Seimei that it didn't matter, that he didn't care if Seimei's grandfather and mother were foxes; but every time he thought he'd found the best way to phrase his speech, Hiromasa remembered that Seimei had chosen to conceal his ancestry, and perhaps he didn't want reassurance because then he'd just be reminded of the difference between them, and...

Hiromasa's head hurt. He gave up trying to think and lay still, sweating in the humid darkness, listening to the wind.

He must have fallen asleep eventually, for when he opened his eyes again, it was morning and someone was hammering on the door. Hiromasa struggled to rise. Tiredness crusted his vision and he shambled to the door, grumbling. With a shock like a dousing of cold water, he noticed Seimei had gone. Hiromasa shook his head. He had to speak to Seimei soon, the sooner the better, and clear up whatever this wariness was between them.

He opened the door, and a novice—one of the youths he'd seen the other night when the kin first played—almost fell onto him in haste. "My lord, forgive me for disturbing you, but there's a message from the town—the headman has returned!"

Hiromasa rubbed a hand across his chin. "That's good. Did he say where he'd been all this time?"

"He was attacked." The novice shuddered. "He saw the spice merchant's wife wandering the streets alone and tried to escort her back to her home, but she gave no sign of recognising him and ignored all his entreaties. The headman says it's as if she were in a trance!"

"That would agree with what the missing sailor's comrades said, too. But wait one moment..." Hiromasa stepped back into the room and pulled on three light robes in complementary tones of blue. Though it couldn't be later than the end of the hour of the Rabbit, the day already felt uncomfortably hot—too hot for a cloak, but Hiromasa refused to go out dressed inappropriately. He smoothed his sleep-draggled hair beneath his cap and joined the novice on the veranda. "Please continue."

The novice bowed. "Lord, the headman said he followed the spice merchant's wife, still trying to urge her to go home, when he saw the young sailor. He also seemed to be in a trance. The lady and the sailor didn't greet each other—in fact, they seemed completely unaware of anything around them!"

"Demonic possession?" Hiromasa wondered aloud. He made a mental note to ask Seimei about this later. "How did Pearl and the sailor get past the town gates?"

"They didn't go that way. The headman tracked them into the poorest part of town and they simply climbed over a tumbledown wall before continuing up the hill." The novice glanced around and lowered his voice. "They went north, into the trees. The headman followed, calling for them to come back. Then it happened."

Hiromasa drew closer. "What?"

The novice made a swooping motion, the sleeves of his robe flapping. "A gigantic shape flew down and struck him! A winged monster, a demon—a ferocious beast with a hooked beak! The air was full of the beating of its wings and its horrible shrieks!"

"How terrifying," Hiromasa murmured, moving away from the novice's excited re-enactment of the demonic attack.

"Yes!" cried the novice, clutching his sleeves about him and twisting now as if in the grip of a monster. "The headman fought the demon, but it overcame him with its awful strength. He was flung against a tree and hit his head, and slumped to the ground—he has a lump the size of a duck's egg on the back of his head, and his hair is matted with blood. He lost his senses and lay helpless in the woods for almost a whole day!"

"Goodness. He's lucky to have survived." Hiromasa edged away, thinking that the young novice would be better suited to a creative profession rather than the monastic life. "I should go to Kuwana and make myself known to the headman. Perhaps he can share more information on what manner of demon attacked him."

"But that's not all!" The novice kept pace, face alight with eagerness. "When the headman woke up, his first thought was for the safety of the spice merchant's wife and the sailor, so he pushed on through the woods and found a trail of blood and clothing."

Hiromasa halted. "And?"

The novice shivered, suddenly losing his high spirits. His expression sobered and even his voice sounded different when he said, "My lord, the headman found them. They're dead, killed the same way as every other victim."

Even though Hiromasa had known they were dead, it still gave him a shock to hear it. He bowed his head, worries and uncertainties jostling for attention. What should he do now? What would Seimei do? Hiromasa squeezed his eyes shut. To help the people of Kuwana and to solve this case, he needed to think clearly and not be distracted by emotion. He recalled Seimei's words to him yesterday: Study the demon's habits... uncover its motivation... attempt to understand it.

Hiromasa straightened. "I need to see it for myself." He looked at the novice. "Take me to the site. I need to examine the bodies."

* * *

The midday heat was unbearable. Hiromasa returned to the shrine with a savage headache and gurgles of nausea threatening at the back of his throat. The novice who'd accompanied him to the scene of the murders had been sick three times already, but Hiromasa was too aware of his rank to risk vomiting in public. He'd wanted to, though—wanted to empty his stomach and clear his mind of the horrible sight of the mangled corpses of the handsome sailor and the spice merchant's pretty young wife.

Several of the townsfolk had stood waiting for him in a little clearing ringed with pine trees. The headman swayed on his feet, eyes wide with shock and the blood dried in runnels down his face. He told the same story to anyone who asked; his voice clipped and low as if repressing screams of horror. The spice merchant and his first wife knelt beside Pearl's body, the merchant clinging tight to his first wife as she wailed out her grief. Three heavyset men in rough, simple clothes huddled at a short distance from the dead sailor—the man's drinking companions, Hiromasa guessed.

"Find the murderer for us, my lord," the spice merchant had said. "Find him and deliver him to us for justice!"

The headman had turned his blank face in their direction. "Not a man. A demon. It's a demon. A demon!"

The novice had been sick for the first time then.

Conscious of his audience, Hiromasa had gone through the motions of examining the two corpses. After a full day exposed to the heat and the attentions of woodland creatures, the bodies had swollen and emitted a rich, slimy odour that seemed to cling to Hiromasa's hands and clothing. Their eyes dribbled with shining rivers of insects, and their torn flesh was a stark, shocking red.

Hiromasa focused his gaze on little details as he moved between the bodies. The sailor's left boot had come unstitched on one side near the heel. Pearl's robe was patterned with stylised clouds and edged with blue ribbon. A small bone comb lay in the grass. Hiromasa stared at it for a long time before concluding that it belonged to the sailor. The study of these small objects gave him time to compose himself and distracted him from the full horror of what he was seeing.

The novice threw up twice more before Hiromasa finished his investigations. The headman broke down in tears and was taken away by the spice merchant and his wife. Only the three sailors remained, casting nervous glances around at the woodland.

"Whether it's a man or a demon, I hope you find the bastard who did this, my lord," one of them said.

"I will," Hiromasa promised; but now as he approached the monastery gates, he wondered if he had the stomach for it. The sun crowded in on him, the light glaring. Not a single cloud hung in the sky. It was too hot, thoughts boiling in his head just as his skin prickled with sweaty heat. Skull thick with pain, Hiromasa handed his mount to the silent novice and blundered in search of Seimei.

He stripped off his cloak as he walked, too hot to care about his lapse of propriety. The sleeves of his top-robe were next. Hiromasa shrugged out of them, letting the top half hang down. It was all very unorthodox, but he still wore two under layers to give the illusion of decency. The sensation of the breeze against his damp skin as he walked brought such relief that he considered making several circuits of the courtyard.

Today, no kin music could be heard from the storeroom. Hiromasa heard conversation instead—a one-sided conversation, by the sound of it, but still a conversation. Pushing open the door with more force than he intended, Hiromasa entered the storeroom to find Seimei lounging on the floor looking cool and relaxed. The kin sat opposite, placed on top of the box of amulets.

Seimei broke off his conversation and turned to Hiromasa, raising one eyebrow. "Ah, Hiromasa. You look a trifle warm."

Hiromasa blew a strand of wet hair from his eyes. "It's too hot out there. Horribly hot. Like a furnace. Who are you talking to?"

"The kin," Seimei said, as if it were obvious.

"Not a ghost?"

Seimei smiled and sketched a spell through the air. "The ghost that haunts this instrument speaks only through her music. To speak to the kin is to speak to her."

"A woman?" The temperature dropped to a comfortable level. Hiromasa gave an appreciative sigh and sank down beside Seimei. "That's better, thank you." He rearranged his silks, looking towards the kin. "A woman haunts it?"

"Indeed. A tragic story." Seimei flicked him a teasing look. "I know how much you love sad stories about women..."

"I do not! I like romances and stories with happy endings—"

"And romantic stories with sad episodes that nevertheless end happily," Seimei continued, "but this lady's story is very sad."

Hiromasa gave the kin a speculative, hopeful glance. "Does it end happily?"

"I don't know." Seimei dropped his gaze, then looked up again and smiled. "But tell me your news. I heard the headman had returned and the bodies had been found. Did you investigate?"

Fresh nausea welled. Hiromasa put a hand over his mouth and shuddered, trying to force back the upheaval in his stomach. For a moment he'd felt so safe here, so wrapped up in the easy intimacy he shared with Seimei, but now the memories of what he'd seen came crashing back, obliterating his sense of calm. He took his hand away and tried to speak. "It was—it was..."

"Oh, Hiromasa." Seimei's voice softened. "Was it so very horrible?"

Tears guttered in his vision. Hiromasa tightened his hands into fists. "It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen. Truly, Seimei, I never thought—never imagined..." He bit off the words, fighting down revulsion and fear. "The headman confirmed it was a demon. A monster with wings and a hooked beak. What it did to them—I will never forget—"

Seimei moved closer, placing a comforting hand on Hiromasa's shoulder. "Tell me," he murmured. "Unburden yourself."

Hiromasa lowered his head and shook with dry sobs. "They—Pearl and the sailor—they'd been mauled by the demon. Clawed at. There was blood everywhere, and bits of flesh, and—and there were holes in their bodies. But the worst thing, the absolute worst thing..." He broke off to rub at his eyes with the back of his fist. Meeting Seimei's steady gaze, Hiromasa said brokenly, "Seimei, the demon drove stakes through them while they were still alive. I could tell by their injuries. They were impaled, forced down onto sharpened spikes. It was—I can't..."

He stopped, overcome. Silence rang around them. Hiromasa concentrated on breathing, willing the nausea to subside.

Seimei looked at the kin. "Ah."

Hiromasa lifted his head. "Is that all you can say? Seimei! Those poor people were murdered in the most appalling way!"

"Butchered," Seimei said.

Hiromasa stared at him, aghast. "How can you be so calm? How can you say 'butchered' like that, as if Pearl and the sailor were animals?"

"To their killer, that's exactly what they were."

Shock brought Hiromasa to his feet. He threw off Seimei's touch and backed away, anger and disappointment twisting his gut. "I won't listen to this. Seimei, sometimes I swear you're no more than an animal yourself!"

A moment of total silence followed this statement. Seimei turned his head, jaw tense, his eyes over-bright.

Hiromasa wanted to kick himself. "I didn't mean..."

"Of course you didn't." A pause, and then Seimei looked up, his features perfectly blank. "Go, Hiromasa. Continue your investigation. The rains will begin during the hour of the Sheep."

* * *

Dispirited and ashamed of the way he'd let his mouth run on without him, Hiromasa slunk out of the storeroom. He scuffed slowly across the gravelled courtyard, hoping Seimei would follow him and annoyed when he heard the delicate sounds of the kin. Huffing, Hiromasa retired to their room and changed his robes. He washed his hands several times in a basin of water warm from the day, dried off on a scrap of linen, then wandered around feeling irritated and restless.

Continue the investigation, Seimei had said. Hiromasa had no idea what to do next. Despite a thorough examination of the bodies, he was no closer to identifying the demon. Gloom descended upon him. Hiromasa fiddled with the cuffs of his sleeves and tried to order his thoughts. When he'd told Seimei about the murders, he'd allowed emotion to rule him. Now he took out the memory again and studied the evidence dispassionately. Seimei had said the demon saw Pearl and the sailor as nothing more than animals. What kind of creature could strip away a person's humanity like that?

A demon, obviously.

Hiromasa heaved a sigh. This method of deduction wasn't working. He would solve nothing at this rate.

The roof creaked. He looked up, sensing a shift in the air. A wind blew, little more than a draught, but it was strong enough to bang the shutters back against the window. Hiromasa held out a hand and felt a cold breeze lick at his fingertips. He wondered if this was the harbinger of the rains.

A sense of anticipation grew within him. It seemed an age since the last time he'd seen the rain. Surely everything would be better when the rains came. No more awful heat, no more short tempers and misspoken words, no more uncomfortable nights and exhausting days. The rains would come, and the world would be put to rights—and he wanted to witness the first few drops fall.

He settled his lacquered tail cap on his head and strode out of the monastery. Up the hill he went, following the line of the woods as he hurried, robes flapping in the rising wind, until he came to the meadow. When he crested the ridge, he saw the heavens smudged with a storm-front; clouds tumbling, black and heavy, into a wall of darkness that moved towards him with surprising speed.

The wind buffeted him, cold fingers snatching at his silks and fluttering the gauze tails of his cap. The air shone with the promise of rain. He could even smell it, a wet earth scent strong enough to taste. Hiromasa ran out into the centre of the meadow amongst the rippling grass and tipped back his head.

The rain began. The sound of it to start, pitter-pattering, then harder, the drops striking the parched ground like drumbeats, sending up puffs of dust. For a while the earth was too dry to accept the rain, then it soaked in, becoming a dark stain spreading over the ground. Hiromasa laughed in sheer pleasure. For the first time since Yatsuhashi, he felt clean, his confidence renewed.

He danced about, catching raindrops, until the downpour became torrential. A cold wind whipped at him, shaping his thin summer silks to his body, and Hiromasa realised he was soaked to the skin. Thunder boomed, rolling in echoes across the sky. He blinked up through the rain streaming down his face in time to see a jagged crack of lightning.

Alarmed, Hiromasa uttered a yelp and scurried for the safety of the woods. Wet branches clawed at him, knocking off his cap and catching in his hair and snatching at his robes. The ground ran with water, the surface turned slippery with mud. The wind hissed through the trees and the grey sky seemed to press down upon him. Hiromasa blundered in what he hoped was the direction of the monastery and emerged through a snarl of brambles into a small clearing canopied by pine trees.

He hadn't been in this part of the woods before. Anxious, he looked around. Movement on one of the lower branches caught his eye. He started forward, only to stop when he recognised the bird watching him. It was the same bird he'd seen on his ride to Kuwana, the same bird he'd seen in the meadow yesterday. A shrike—the bird that turned into a weed.

Curious, he approached the shrike. It continued to look at him, now perched motionless on its branch. As he drew closer, Hiromasa noticed an insect trapped beneath the bird's claws. It was a wasp, still alive, its body writhing. A heartbeat later, the shrike dipped its head and retrieved the wasp, holding it delicately in its sharp, hooked bill. The shrike flitted from the branch and landed on the brambles. Dancing sidelong, it stabbed the wriggling, kicking wasp down onto a thorn then flew back to its perch.

Hiromasa stared, horrified by the bird's cruelty. There were other insects impaled on the brambles, he realised—crickets, worms, even a small lizard. Some were dead; some were missing parts of their tiny bodies. Others still lived out their death throes. It was like—it was too much like...

The shrike shrilled, disrupting his thoughts. Hiromasa backed away from the bird. When he reached the edge of the clearing, he turned and ran.

* * *

Hiromasa was wet and miserable by the time he arrived back at the monastery. The kick of fear he'd felt in the woods had faded, leaving him irritable and embarrassed. As if a little bird could harm a grown man! His terror had been nothing more than confusion at being lost in the rainstorm, he told himself, but when the gatekeeper reminded him it was almost time for the evening meal, Hiromasa remembered the insects and lizard impaled on the thorns and decided he wasn't hungry.

Rain still fell, gentler now. Mist cloaked the red-tiled roofs of the monastery. The gravel in the courtyard was waterlogged, puddles running the length of the galleries. A group of young novices splashed through the water, only to be reprimanded by a passing monk.

Hiromasa squelched along the veranda, his robes dragging heavily behind him, the silk cold against his skin. He pushed open the door to his room and stood blinking, one foot over the threshold. A brazier had been set up, its embers glowing with mild heat, a clothes rack arranged around it.

The thoughtful gesture would not have come from the monks. Hiromasa loosened his cloak and hung it on the rack. He did it slowly, aware of Seimei stretched out on a bedroll at the back of the room.

Seimei leaned on one arm, dressed only in two robes, dark blue figured silk over a white shift. He looked pale and thoughtful, a fan touched to his lips and his gaze turned inward, unfocused. A moment later he stirred, glancing up. He raked Hiromasa with a single look. "You're wet."

"It's raining." Annoyance clouded Hiromasa's tone. "You said it would rain this afternoon, and it did. It's raining, so I got wet."

Discarding his fan, Seimei sat up. "You're angry."

"Frustrated." Hiromasa tore off his top-robe, wrinkling his nose at the way it clung and slopped. He threw it into a corner, thought better of it, and draped the silk over the clothes rack. Being sensible did nothing to alleviate his temper, and he tugged at the next set of layers. "Frustrated with the murders, with the people of Kuwana, with the weather, with this monastery, with..."

"With me?"

Hiromasa swung around. "Seimei..." He stopped, lifting his hands in a helpless gesture. He had nothing to say. The last thing he wanted was to fight with Seimei, and right now he mistrusted any words that might come out of his mouth. Whatever he said would be taken the wrong way, and he couldn't bear it. Better to be silent. Hiromasa shook his head, letting out his breath on a sigh.

Seimei lifted his chin. His eyes shone in the half light, a glitter of veiled emotion. When he spoke, his voice was husky, hesitant. "I have not been an ideal companion since Yatsuhashi."

Hiromasa shrugged as he unfastened his topknot. He twisted his hair over one shoulder and patted at the wet ends. "It's not your fault. The shadow fox hurt you."

"Yes." The word drew out, sibilant, uncertain. Seimei looked blank.

Silence quivered between them. Hiromasa wondered if he'd missed something. He let go of his hair, flicking a curious glance at his friend. Seimei watched him, gaze black and intense and full of unspoken desire.

Hiromasa turned away, tongue-tied. His hands shook as he continued to peel off the wet garments. Unwilling to be seen naked even by Seimei, he snatched up a dry robe and wrapped it around him before he stripped off his wet hakama.

"Hiromasa." Now Seimei's voice was soft, commanding, almost a purr.

Wild hope fluttering inside him, Hiromasa turned around.

Seimei reached out. "Come here."

Heart pounding, Hiromasa went and knelt on the floor beside him. He took a deep breath, inhaling the scent from Seimei's silks—frankincense, musk, honey. His head spun. He touched Seimei, stroked his sleeve, let their fingers entwine. Hiromasa looked down at their joined hands, aware of the difference between them, not just physical but in age and wisdom and experience and emotion. He had ten thousand things to say, but couldn't articulate any beyond a single word: "Seimei..."

"Hush."

Hiromasa slid a caress down Seimei's face, rested his fingertips over the pulse in Seimei's neck. He dropped his hand to the collar of the robes, the fabric soft-sheened beneath his touch. Hiromasa gazed at Seimei's pale throat and the overlap of warm silk and felt crushed with need.

Seimei took down his hair, shook it out slightly, and smiled. "Forgive me?"

Hiromasa made an incoherent sound and pulled Seimei into his arms.

* * *

The rain continued to fall, a gentle lulling sound against the roof. An agreeable scent of drying clothes and fresh sweat tickled Hiromasa's nose. He made a happy noise and nestled closer to Seimei, still wanting to touch and caress. He played with a tendril of Seimei's hair, rediscovering its smell, its softness. Focusing on such a simple pleasure made it easier for him to give words to his thoughts.

"You must know I don't care how old you are or what rank you hold or how many spells you can recite. I don't care about your terrible court manners or your refusal to write poetry. I don't care how many demons you've exorcised or how many times you trick me with your shikigami. Most of all, I don't care what you are," Hiromasa said quietly. "You are you, Seimei—that's all that matters."

Seimei looked sweetly content for the first time since Yatsuhashi. He smiled. "You are far too good for me."

"On the contrary, it's you who are too good for me."

"We could debate the issue for the rest of the night and never agree."

Hiromasa halted that line of conversation by turning Seimei's right arm towards him and examining the scars of the shadow fox's poison. The fine, spidery white lines beneath the skin had almost faded. Hiromasa bent his head and traced the scars with his tongue. Seimei squirmed and murmured, his breath quickening.

Hiromasa placed a kiss on the soft skin in the crook of Seimei's elbow. "Why didn't you tell me before that you truly were half fox?"

Seimei drew back slightly. "And spoil the surprise? Really, Hiromasa." He raised his eyebrows, his tone arch and mocking.

"Seimei." Hiromasa gave him a quelling look. "Don't try to be defensive. Not with me."

"It seems I have no defences with you." Seimei sighed and stretched, lifting his arms briefly above his head. Settling back onto the bedroll, he touched gentle fingertips to Hiromasa's cheek. "If I'd told you, would you have believed me?"

"Absolutely. I believe everything you tell me."

"That is not always wise."

Hiromasa shrugged. "If you omit or avoid the truth, you do it for your own purposes. I trust you."

Seimei stared, emotion drowning his eyes for a brief, joyous moment. "Oh, Hiromasa."

"Why should it change anything?" Hiromasa curled one leg over Seimei's. "The rumours about your mother have been common currency at court for ages."

"Rumour is not the same as truth. Rumour can be controlled, ignored. Truth cannot." Seimei closed his eyes. "I didn't want you to think I was a demon. I didn't want you to think less of me."

Hiromasa gave a soft snort. "First of all, you're only half a demon—"

Seimei opened his eyes, gaze narrow. "Hiromasa..."

"Secondly," Hiromasa continued, "I've seen demons. I've fought against them by your side. I've been through Ame no Miyashiro into the unseen world of the gods. I've died and been brought back to life. To some people, all that would make me a demon, too—or at least a demon sympathiser. I know demons, and you're not one of them. Not even when you're really angry."

A soft huff of laughter shook Seimei. "But still..."

"But nothing! Seimei, you are not—you could never be—a demon." A thought struck him then, and Hiromasa turned onto his side, frowning. "It's happened before, hasn't it? Someone rejected you because you're half fox."

Seimei didn't reply, but his stillness was all the answer Hiromasa needed.

"It doesn't matter to me," Hiromasa said. "You are you, and I love you."

This time Seimei's pale skin warmed with colour. He lowered his gaze and said softly, "My parentage complicates things in other ways, too."

Hiromasa considered what he knew of foxes. "With Lady Aone... when she told us about her life, her immortality—you said—"

"'What a sad fate'," Seimei whispered.

"You weren't talking about Lady Aone's fate, were you?" Hiromasa sat up and looked at him. "You were thinking of your own."

The glimmer of a twisted smile curved Seimei's lips. "Aone's fate and mine are not so different, though I am not immortal. The curse of a very long life is that I must lose things I want to keep... although doubtless if I am patient and deserving enough, those things will be returned to me in due course."

Hiromasa lay down again and pillowed his cheek on his hand. "Will I be reborn for you?"

"Who knows? If I am fortunate." Seimei's smile grew, became teasing. "If you are unfortunate..."

"Seimei. Don't joke." Hiromasa yawned, feeling sleep pull at his senses. "My life would be nothing without you."

A long silence greeted this remark. Seimei's eyes glittered, then he leaned forward and kissed Hiromasa.

It was not the response Hiromasa wanted but it would suffice for now, for he knew it was heartfelt.

* * *

Morning came, bringing with it the dazzle of bright sunlight and the smell of verdancy. Hiromasa woke happy and hungry, and spent several moments nuzzling Seimei from his dreams before jumping to his feet, dressing, and going in search of breakfast. He returned with a large bowl of rice flavoured with specks of garlic and shredded pickled radish, and set it down on the floor beside the bedroll.

"I didn't eat very much yesterday," he excused himself, shovelling rice as fast as he could fill his mouth. "Wasn't very hungry, then I was too busy." He blushed and dropped his gaze to the food when Seimei chuckled.

"Too busy," Seimei said, his tone teasing. "I apologise for causing you such trouble, Hiromasa."

"You're not trouble." Hiromasa licked his fingers. "Please take some of this before I eat it all."

Seimei sat up and helped himself to the rice. Hiromasa watched him, pleased to see his friend so content. There was a lightness about Seimei now, as if his spirits had been lifted and his worries erased. Hiromasa recognised the part he'd played in restoring Seimei's equilibrium, and felt quietly glad.

"What do you intend to do today?" Seimei asked when he'd finished eating.

Hiromasa ran through a dozen pleasurable answers before settling on an honest reply. "I will continue the investigation. The townsfolk are awaiting my conclusions, although I'm afraid to say I haven't made much progress."

"Don't say that." Seimei gathered the length of his hair in his hands, twisted it into a lazy topknot, and fastened it in place with a strip of mulberry paper. "You know more than you realise."

Hiromasa sighed and picked at the leftover rice. "I'm not as clever as you, Seimei."

"I'm sure if you thought about it, if we discussed it, you'd find you were in a much stronger position than you believe."

"Maybe." Hiromasa's attention wandered as he watched Seimei dress. Recollecting himself, he glanced down into the rice bowl and scraped up what remained of the food. "I know how the victims are murdered, but I don't know who's doing it. None of the townsfolk know, either. When I questioned them, they mentioned minor feuds over debts and marriage contracts and suchlike, but nothing that would explain a series of murders spanning eighty years. Who's responsible for this? Who is he?"

Seimei put on his hunting costume, fastened the braided collar, and smoothed out his sleeves. "There is one suspect."

"A demon." Hiromasa pushed the bowl aside. "Only a demon would have the strength and cunning to do such a terrible thing."

"Oh, it's a demon. That is not the point."

"It isn't?"

"Have I taught you nothing, Hiromasa?" Seimei raised his eyebrows.

Hiromasa blushed again.

Seimei laughed. "It is not the what that concerns us, but the why. Very few demons are motivated by pure evil. A demon who butchers humans does so for a specific reason."

"Motivation," Hiromasa said with a sigh. He thought for a moment. "Perhaps he does it for a spell."

"Good." Seimei went over to the window and opened the shutters all the way. "What form would this spell take? What purpose would it have?"

Hiromasa gazed out of the window at the puddles in the courtyard. Realisation struck. "To summon the rain!"

Seimei gave a pleased nod. "Very good."

"A sacrifice." Hiromasa shuddered. "That's horrible."

"The most ancient and powerful spells require a blood sacrifice." Leaning on the windowsill, Seimei looked out at the monastery. "Spells involving the weather are the most vicious of all... especially the most primitive, basic spells."

Hiromasa stood and joined Seimei at the window. "But I don't understand. The rains were due to come anyway. The rains come every year, and yet the murderer doesn't strike every year. Why kill people at such strange intervals?"

Seimei said nothing; just looked at him expectantly.

"Could it be because—because..." Hiromasa struggled, groping for a reason that made sense. His head hurt. It was too early in the morning for him to wrestle with a conundrum like this, but he didn't want to give up; at least, not while Seimei stood looking at him with such a clear expression of certainty and belief.

"The intervals aren't random." Hiromasa remembered Seimei saying that. He rubbed a hand across his head. "The intervals are... set?"

Seimei breathed out. "Yes."

"The intervals have nothing to do with the coming of the rains. Or... or they do, but the rains aren't what motivate the murderer." Thoughts tangled and clashed. Hiromasa whined. "Seimei, I don't know!"

"Come with me." Seimei brushed past him, catching at his hand and leading him to the door.

"You know, don't you?" Hiromasa kept hold of Seimei's hand as they started across the courtyard. "You know who did it and why."

Again Seimei said nothing.

Hiromasa muttered. He looked around the monastery, hoping none of the novices were out to witness the sight of Seimei leading him along like an ox hauling a cart. His gaze flicked over the roof-tiles, glistening wet in the morning sun, and fixed on a pair of doves circling the main shrine. Their flight reminded him of another bird, more sinister than the doves. An idea came to him. "Seimei, that bird we saw in the meadow—"

"The shrike."

"It has a hooked beak. And," Hiromasa continued, his confidence growing the more he considered his idea, "I saw it again yesterday just after the rains came, and witnessed a strange thing. It had caught a wasp and stabbed it, still alive, onto the spike of a bramble. It made me think of the demon, of what happened to Pearl and the sailor."

They reached the storeroom. Seimei paused at the door and turned to face him. "The shrike has another name."

"What?"

Seimei gave him a long look. "It's called the butcher bird."

Hiromasa drew in his breath. "Then the shrike is the demon?" he asked, following Seimei into the semi-darkness of the storeroom.

"I believe so."

"It explains the demon's unusual method of killing." Pieces of the puzzle were slowly coming together. Hiromasa sidestepped the box of amulets and avoided the pile of tattered scrolls. "So we have its identity, but not its motive."

Seimei chuckled, the sound deep and rich. "Oh, but we do."

Hiromasa huffed and leaned against a supporting pillar. "It's nothing to do with the usual arguments of the townsfolk and we've already established it needs to be about more than summoning the rain, so what else could it be?"

With a graceful movement, Seimei knelt and picked up the kin. Cradling it in his arms, he gave it a soft, almost tender look. "This is the motive."

Mouth falling open, Hiromasa stared. "The kin...? The ghost!"

Laying the instrument across his lap, Seimei stroked across the strings, bringing forth the faintest ripple of music. "Listen," he said, and played a tune—the melody they'd heard the first night. He played it through twice, once without any kind of ornamentation, the second time with emphasis on certain notes, plucking hard at the strings with sharp fingernails and making the sound resonate.

Hiromasa frowned, knowing he was on the edge of understanding but not quite grasping it yet. "I don't..."

"Listen." Seimei looked up at him, gaze dark, and began the tune a third time.

The music rang around the room, humming through Hiromasa's body. He closed his eyes and swayed with it, trying to get inside the melody, and imagined playing the piece on his flute. He pictured it, the fingering, the sequence of the notes—

"Ah!" His eyes flew open and he started forward. "Again, Seimei—play it again from the start!"

Seimei began the tune again, and Hiromasa counted out the intervals between each note. The pattern he wanted came almost halfway through the melody. "One, three, six, four, seventeen..." Hiromasa clapped his hands. "The time between the murders is set according to the intervals between notes in the kin's song."

The music cut off; Seimei rested his hands over the strings. "And so?"

"And so I think it's about time you told me the story of the ghost who haunts this instrument." Hiromasa crouched down beside Seimei and the kin. "The ghost and the shrike demon knew one another, didn't they?"

"They did indeed." Seimei drew out a note, letting it hang in the air, a wavering, mournful sound. "The lady whose spirit inhabits the kin was one of the good people, the daughter of a nobleman. Her father left court and brought his family here to his country estate. Though in retirement, the noble corresponded with the emperor and retained his reputation and prestige. The lady had many suitors who hoped to gain from her father's connections, but she liked none of them. Instead, she fell in love with a country gentleman—a young man way below her in rank; a man little better than a farmer."

"Oh dear," Hiromasa sighed.

Seimei stroked his fingers across the kin, letting the chords weave into his words. "He brought her gifts according to the season—flowers, fruit, feathers—and she played the kin for him. She ran away with him in early summer, in the fifth month, and they seemed to turn into weeds and vanish into the fields."

"Like the bird," Hiromasa interrupted. "The shrike." He shivered, remembering the way the shrike had stared at him from the tree.

"Indeed." Seimei paused to adjust one of the tuning pegs, played a few notes, then resumed his story. "The lady and her lover were discovered by her family and dragged from their hiding place. Grief-stricken, she swore to end her life rather than live without him. Her lover promised he would find a way to rescue her from her family. He told her he would wait forever and begged her to keep faith with him.

"The lady's father was furious at such an imprudent liaison. Afraid of the potential for gossip should the news reach court, and what effect such gossip would have on his reputation, the nobleman decided to marry his daughter to the next suitable man who offered for her. Until the negotiations were complete, he locked his daughter in her room with not even a maidservant for company."

Hiromasa sniffled. "How cruel!"

Seimei played a variation on the melody. "Despite her father's watchfulness, the lady's lover got a message to her. He told her he would come for her on the first day of the rains. The lady, who had only her kin as solace in her prison, whiled away the long hours playing her lover's favourite song."

The notes blurred. Seimei's voice dropped. "The rains were unseasonably late that year. The lady waited and waited. Her father found her a bridegroom. With the day of her marriage creeping ever closer, the lady stopped playing the kin and stood watching the heavens. Still the rains did not come; still her lover stayed away."

Seimei stopped playing. The room rang with silence. "The night before her marriage, the lady played her kin one final time. She unfastened the silk strings from the tuning pegs and braided them together, made a noose, and hanged herself."

Hiromasa shook his head. "How awful."

"When the lover found out, he wept." The music started again, but this time Seimei took his hands from the instrument and let the kin play by itself. "He wept, and his grief brought forth the rains. He cursed the lady's family and their lands, swore a terrible oath of revenge, and vanished into the fields. Fearful of the curse, the family donated their estate to a cell of monks caring for the nearby shrine. They built the monastery on the family's land, and the kin—and the lady's spirit—have remained here ever since."

The melody came to an end, its last notes drifting away into memory. Hiromasa gave a deep sigh. "You were right—that is a sad story. I don't like sad stories." He touched the silent kin, stroking the dark wood. "What happened to her lover?"

Seimei looked at him. "He became a demon, and year after year, as promised, he still waits for her."

* * *

They wrapped the kin and took it out of the monastery. Hiromasa retraced his footsteps of the previous day, following the trail of his panicked, waterlogged flight. They entered the woods, and when they came to the clearing surrounded by brambles and canopied by pine trees, Seimei knelt in the grass and uncovered the kin. He set it on his lap and waited, head cocked, listening to the sound of the wind through the branches.

Hiromasa glanced around, his gaze drawn by the tiny corpses impaled upon the thorns. The macabre decoration made him shiver, and he edged closer to Seimei.

A flurry, a clatter of birdsong, and the shrike flew into the clearing. It perched on the branch above its larder and looked at them.

Leaning over the instrument, Seimei struck the opening notes of the tune. Hiromasa found himself tensing, his fists clenched as he watched the shrike flick up and down the branch, its movements agitated. Its hooked bill opened; it warbled. Its sharp black eyes shone and it lifted its wings, flapping, struggling.

Seimei took his hands from the strings. The kin played on, the melody repeating, growing louder each time. In the tree, the shrike fluttered, increasingly frantic. It shrieked as if trying to drown out the music, but the kin sounded its notes even louder than before.

With gentle care, Seimei slid the kin from his knees and placed it on the grass. He rose and backed away, catching Hiromasa's sleeve and pulling him to a safe distance.

The shrike hurled itself from the tree. As it fell, its body shimmered, becoming larger, becoming monstrous, and Hiromasa gave a squeak of fear as he saw what the headman must have seen two nights ago—a gigantic winged beast with a hooked beak. The shrike demon screamed and battered at the instrument with its wings, its claws catching in the silken strings. Its cries grew to a pitch and intensity that made Hiromasa wince, then it fell silent.

From the kin came the ghost of a woman, her form pale and silvery. She wrapped herself around the shrike demon and tucked her head against its breast. The kin played on, the melody soft now, quiet and soothing. Hiromasa clutched at Seimei's arm as the shrike demon changed shape again, the terrifying form melting away to reveal the shade of a handsome young gentleman.

The two ghosts embraced. Their features blurred, their outlines starting to fade. By the time the last notes of the song rang out, both the lady and her lover had vanished.

The strings of the kin snapped, and the instrument fell quiet. Silvery dust covered the ground, and silence spread through the woods like ripples of water.

Hiromasa took a breath and heaved a huge sigh. "They've gone."

"A happy ending," Seimei said. He arched an eyebrow. "That's what you wanted, wasn't it? A sad romance with a happy ending."

"Yes, but..." Hiromasa flapped a hand at the shrike's larder. "All those people the demon murdered over the years. They didn't have happy endings."

Seimei touched Hiromasa's arm. "You can't save everyone. We cannot alter fate."

Hiromasa nodded, a note of melancholy still lingering.

"Well," said Seimei, crouching to tie the broken strings around the body of the kin, "I think our stay here is concluded."

Pulling himself from his thoughts, Hiromasa asked, "You feel rested enough to continue the journey home?"

Seimei gave him a tender look. "Quite rested, thank you."

Hiromasa blushed with pleasure. "We should tell the people of Kuwana that they will never again be troubled by the demon and the haunted kin."

"Very well." Seimei rewrapped the instrument in his cloak.

"The spice merchant offered us the use of his ox-cart for the remainder of our travels," Hiromasa continued.

Pausing in his task, Seimei glanced up. "I think I would prefer to ride."

"But the rains have come," Hiromasa said. "We'll get wet."

"I'll take that chance." Seimei lifted the kin into his arms, a wicked gleam in his eyes as he headed for the trees. "We'll have more opportunities to break our journey now the rains are here."

It took Hiromasa a moment to catch Seimei's meaning, and then he laughed. "So we shall! You have the most excellent ideas, Seimei."

Seimei took tighter hold of the kin and smiled over his shoulder. "Come, Hiromasa. The road awaits."