The heat of the seventh month strikes like a hammer-blow. Even the insects are too exhausted to raise their voices, and instead retreat to dark crevices to dream of rain. Likewise, the court slips into somnolence. Those who have the means to do so make the journey to Lake Biwa or retire to the foothills, where the occasional downdraught of a breeze, though still warm, is not only welcome but also presents the opportunity for the summer-exiled courtiers to pen gleeful, gloating poems to acquaintances still languishing in the capital.
Hiromasa has received one too many of these poems. He longs to escape the heat of the city and stroll along the banks of Lake Biwa. Never mind that his correspondents report that the lake has shrunk in on itself, leaving a rim of cracked mud all around the edges. Never mind that the heat has shrivelled the shade-giving trees and turned the grass yellow and brown. It’s the idea of the lake that soothes him. He can see it in his mind’s eye, endless blue shimmering with white crests, the cool touch of the water lapping over his feet, the splash as he thrusts his hands beneath the surface, drenching his sleeves...
He jerks out of his daydream. Through sweat-spiked lashes he peers past the green bamboo blinds at the veranda. Seimei sits out in full sunlight, a single ice-blue robe of beaten silk worn beneath his habitual white hunting costume. The glare from the white brocade is unbearable. The only concession Seimei has made to the heat is to unfasten the sleeves of his hunting costume and to leave off his lacquered cap. The sunlight gleams through his hair, raising tones of red from the black.
Hiromasa lifts himself from his torpor and crawls closer. He stops where the line of shade ends. He walks his fingertips across the polished wooden planks and hisses at the burst of almost-pain. The floor has soaked up so much heat it’s like touching a brazier full of burning coals. He kneels up, keeps out of the sun, and stares at Seimei.
It’s as if Seimei is in a trance, sitting upright and rigid, absorbing the light and heat. His skin is pale, barely warmed by the sun, but Hiromasa knows that if he placed a hand over Seimei’s oiled hair, it would burn his palm. He casts around in the shadows for a fan, finds one discarded, and flicks it close to his face. The breeze whispers over him, cool and dry, and brings with it the scent of sun-baked earth and desiccated roses.
He looks at Seimei, admires the starched lines of the summer silks. His gaze fastens on the elegant sweep of Seimei’s neck. The shorter hair at his nape is damp with perspiration, and a longer tendril, softened by the heat, has worked loose from the topknot. It lies, wet and clinging, a curve of black dipping below the collar of the robes.
Hiromasa shifts closer, almost crosses the line of shadow. Sunlight brushes his bare feet. He wonders what it would be like to trace the path of that tendril of hair, taste the sheen of sweat from the back of Seimei’s neck. He leans forward, yearning, and now he can imagine it, the burst of fox-sweetness on his tongue, the scent of heated flesh and fire-black hair in his nose.
Seimei stirs, turns his head towards Hiromasa, lifts an eyebrow in silent question.
Hiromasa makes a brief gesture. “May I— Will you...”
He says no more, falls silent as Seimei lifts his hands and slips free the knotted fastener at the collar of his hunting costume. A shrug, and the hunting costume unwraps, starched cloth crumpling. There’s a stripe of sweat dampening the back of the ice-blue silk, and Hiromasa sighs at this unusual glimpse of humanity in his friend. Seimei tilts his head, uses both hands to ease the flimsy beaten silk from his body, letting the robe shiver down from his shoulders to reveal the pale, sweat-slicked skin of his back.
The loose tendril of hair looks even more seductive against such a rare sight. Desire, as fierce and brutal as the sunlight, rushes through Hiromasa. Almost without volition he’s moving again, out of the shadows and into the light, across the burn of the veranda floor. He crouches behind Seimei, studying the upsweep of his hair, the vulnerability of his nape, the enticing lick of sweat along his spine.
Hiromasa rocks forward, goes onto his knees, inhales the warmth and scent of Seimei’s skin. He’s almost afraid to touch. Instead, he lets his breath caress Seimei’s body, uses mouthed and whispered words to stroke and tease.
Seimei closes his eyes and arches forward, quivering. Tiny gasps of arousal escape his lips. Silk shirrs beneath Hiromasa’s hands. The sun blazes down on them, burning, burning. Their shadows are reduced to nothing.
Then Hiromasa pulls back, sighs in pleasurable regret, and gently draws up the ice-blue robe. He covers Seimei’s pale shoulders, presses an almost-kiss to Seimei’s nape. His lips are close enough that he can taste the fresh sweat gathered there.
He retreats across the line of shadow, retires inside the house. It seems much cooler in there now.