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The Middle Way

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From her room at the top of the fortress, O-Beni can see the entire castle town. Kitaakita stretches out beneath her, from the thick walls of Kubota garrison to the rice fields and village beyond, everything covered in snow so thick that the world is white hills and craters, a desert of ice. Most of the peasants are in their homes, just surviving, tending to themselves since it’s impossible to tend the fields. The soldiers run scant patrols, twos and threes along the fortress walls. Her father would never allow this, but then, her father has gone to Edo for the winter, and O-Beni knows that no soldier will respect her if she makes him freeze his limbs off in the snow.

And no one will attack. No one will come. The Kuzuryuu shogun has given them peace, for better or worse--almost certainly better--and the soldiers in the castle are as thankful as anyone else.

The snow comes down in sheets, too thick to see the clouds behind, and O-Beni returns to her writing. Her father left the inventory in a state. Not that she minds--she’s always been better at keeping it, like her mother before her, may she rest in peace--and even in peacetime her father has more important things to worry about. She’ll help when and how she can, and this is how she can, so she makes new lists, clears the chickenscratch of father’s scrivener away and leaves a new list in its place.

She’s halfway through when the soldiers shout an alarm. “To the gates!” they yell, “Catch him at the gates!”

O-Beni drops her brush and runs down the stairs, leaves the heat of her room behind. A thief, maybe, trying to escape from the storehouse, or a soldier deserting to help his family in the cold. Either way, it’s her responsibility since her father is gone--

--and then the shout rings up again, “Don’t let it in!”

Let it in? Not out? She takes the stairs faster, rushes through the hall to the courtyard and throws on the first shoes she can find. They won’t keep her feet out of the snow, but they’ll help carry her along, and once she’s outside where the soldiers are holding the main gate shut, shoulder to the beam, she yells, “What’s going on?”

“A monster, my lady!” the captain says, “Bigger than a bear! He ran out of the woods and straight for the fort.”

The pounding on the gate stops, but the men don’t move from holding it shut. “Nonsense,” O-Beni says. “It probably was a bear. Someone must have woken it up. Hasn’t it gone off now?”

One of the men atop the garrison walls looks down, and calls back, “No. It’s passed out. Maybe dead.”

“Dead at the gates?” She can picture the creature, running up the mountain for the fortress, from whatever chaos to the relative safety. “Are you sure?”

“I should know, my lady! I shot it!”

Ridiculous. “You shot it without knowing who it was?”

“No man would go out in this snow!”

O-Beni grits her teeth, gives them the order. “Open the gates.”

She can pretend they aren’t questioning her, if she thinks of their glare as simply snow in their eyes. But they do, just enough to let her out, and they hold it open.

Sure enough, there’s something pooled in the snow, with arrows sticking out of its bulk. But it’s not bigger than a bear, just draped in ratty red and blue cloth, with swollen human feet in tattered sandals and soaked socks peeking out past the hem. O-Beni kneels, holds him, turns him over in her lap.

Even six years later--even under a black mask and wild frostbite and hooded spectacles--she would know Nobu’s eyes anywhere.

* *

She tends him for hours, and eventually he wakes. His hair is longer, unkempt and filthy and curling at the bottom from all the stove heat. The arrow wounds in his back and shoulder should bleed more than they do--which is to say, at all. They seal themselves up almost as soon as she pulls the arrows out, almost too quickly for her to clean the punctures. His gangly and underfed body, beneath the wreck of his kimono, is covered in ofuda, holy seals that cling to him with paste. She doesn’t know whether to remove them or not. Nobu was always so spiritual, so committed to the Way. There must be a purpose for them that she couldn’t know. Maybe he took vows, but then, his hair is still long, with no tonsure, only receding and grey at the sides.

He tries to sit up, when she’s warming his hands. “Shh,” she says. “It’s fine. You made it, Nobu.”

“I made it?” he repeats, hoarse, questioning.

“You’re in Kubota,” she says, makes sure she’s in his line of sight and smiles. “Don’t worry, my father’s out.” They’ve never gotten on. General Arashi simply doesn’t trust pacifists. “I promise, you’re safe.”

Nobu exhales, rattling all through his chest, and sinks back onto the futon. “I’m never safe.”

O-Beni picks up his spectacles from where they rest, at the tray with her medicines and hot water. She still hasn’t cleaned them yet, so she does that now, wipes the snow and grime away with a corner of her sleeve. The glass in the spectacles isn’t clear or straight, tinted and curved like a bowl. She hands them back to him, and he pulls them on, blinks behind the glass. He looks up at her and smiles, but it’s so tight, so wounded.

“I promise,” she says, “you’re safe here. You’re always safe with me.”

Before he can say anything to that--and he would, her Nobu was always so modest--a soldier knocks on the shoji, hard enough to make the paper snick and slide. “My lady,” he says, “there are some peasants complaining about damage to their homes. Will you see them?”

“Of course,” she says. She gives Nobu another quick smile, as reassuring as she can be, and can’t help stroking his hair before she gets up and leaves. “You can send for food,” she says, “you must be hungry. I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

Almost as soon as she’s at the shoji, he speaks up. “Lady O-Beni.”

She turns back, a hand on the slider. “You don’t have to be so polite with me.”

“I can’t stay,” he says, like it pains him. Like the arrow wounds haven’t closed on their own. Like he should be dead.

She could never stand seeing him in pain. “Yes, you can. At least until you’re well, all right?”

He sags back down to the futon, and doesn’t answer.

* *

She sits on her father’s dais, and the peasants explain:

--it tore right through my walls, and I can’t repair my house in the snow--

--like a demon, black and green, roaring so loud it scared the pigs right out of the cottage--

--my son, he tried to shoot it, and the monster broke his arm and threw him like he was just a toy--

--my family is freezing--

--dying--

--monster--

--monster--

“Please,” O-Beni says, when they’ve all forgotten themselves and are shouting, like carrion fowl heralding a slaughter. “Please, calm down. There is no monster. If there’s a thief or a vandal, don’t worry, we’ll get to the bottom of this. But there’s no need to exaggerate.”

“I’m not exaggerating!” the last peasant shouts, so loud that the soldiers move in to restrain her. “He hurt my son!”

“I said, we’ll get to the bottom of this.” She doesn’t mean to raise her voice. It’s unbecoming. But there’s something wrong, a pall or a cast over the entire audience chamber, as if anger could brew in the air like a storm. “I’ll send a doctor home with you, and carpenters to repair your homes as best they can in this weather. If you’ve lost something, livestock, rice, I’ll make a list and see what we can spare, and if we can’t spare it now I’ll talk to my father. But please. Stay calm.”

Her words don’t cut the thickness of the air, but they do leave the peasants silent and humming, whispering among themselves.

They can’t say she isn’t fair. They can’t speak against her. And they don’t, and leave their lists of grievances to file out into the snow before the sun sets completely, wherever it is beyond the clouds.

* *

When she comes back to Nobu’s room, he’s meditating. She remembers this from their time at court, and can’t stop the sigh that comes to her lips and emerges with a smile. He used to be so beautiful at peace, all the lines and cares on his skin washed away in the steady smoke of a censer. He’s sent for food but hasn’t eaten it, and the steam of the kettle is almost like incense, but the room smells empty, clean, crackling with potential.

And his face isn’t at peace. Beautiful, yes, but hard, creased at the jaw, like he won’t send himself to meet with the gods, not now.

She doesn’t speak, doesn’t interrupt, lets him come down on his own. There are things she can do while he is quiet, surely. She stokes the stove fire, clears the medicine tray into the hall, sits at the window and watches the peasants march off into the night, escorted by the soldiers and carpenters she promised. She balls up Nobu’s old rags and sends them off to be cleaned, salvaged if they can be, which they almost certainly can’t.

At last, when the sky beyond the clouds is black, Nobu emerges from his meditation--with a shout, like he’s been bitten.

He pitches forward, and O-Beni rushes to catch him before he knocks the food tray over. He lurches into her arms, but pulls away immediately, scuttles to the back wall, panting with a hand over his heart.

“It’s all right,” she says, or tries to say. “It’s just me.”

“It’s not all right,” he says, more growl than breath. “Nothing is.”

She shakes her head. “You can tell me if it isn’t.”

“Not this time.”

“What’s different about this time?” She tries to advance toward him, but he inches up the wall, even though he has nowhere to go, so she stops. “What happened since court?”

“Everything,” he groans. “Look at the world, Lady O-Beni. It’s gone mad and so have I.”

“I don’t think you’re mad.” She sits, since she can’t come closer. She remembers coaxing a tanuki out of the sewing room, once. Nobu was there then, too, when they were children at court. He said it himself, make it feel like it’s bigger than you, and it won’t be afraid. “But you might be right about the world. I know less than you.”

His own trick starts to work on him, and he relaxes his shoulders. The paper ofuda on his chest rise and fall with his ragged breath, but his hand hasn’t left his heart. Is he counting the beats? “That’s not true. Not about this world, at least.”

She can’t help smiling. “So you made it. You found a way to the other side.”

“Not exactly,” he says through grit teeth. “I’m still here. I just know more than I used to.”

She reaches for the teapot and dish of matcha on his food tray, prepares two cups. Nobu has always been somewhat weak to the smell of tea, and she knows he knows it and won’t think ill of her for exploiting it. If this won’t calm him, nothing will. “Did you stay at court long after I left?”

He shakes his head. “No. How is your husband?”

“Not yet my husband,” she says. “He’s still with the shogun. Please don’t change the subject, Nobu. You don’t have to.”

He reaches up to rub the back of his neck, comes a step away from the wall. “Forgive me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive.” She offers him a cup of tea, still steeping.

He comes forward to take it, and they drink in silence.

* *

When the sun sets behind the clouds, General Arashi has his men make camp. No sane man likes marching in the snow, but not even an insane man will march in the snow at night. He commandeers one of his own villages, and they are obliged to have him. The mayor of this hamlet gives over his house to Arashi without question, and provides an excellent meal on top of that. Arashi tells him he will remember this, when it comes time to collect taxes in the spring. Ameru, the onmyouji he brought from Edo, meets Arashi’s eyes across the table and laughs, but says nothing just yet. He wanted to keep going, and said he could, snow or no snow, but deferred to Arashi in the end. They always do.

“Tell me,” Arashi asks the mayor, and leans sidelong to make sure Ameru knows this line of questioning, “have there been any strange incidents in the area?”

The mayor bows his head and defers, “Strange how, sir?”

Ameru makes a show of picking his teeth. He has every outward calm, so that even this gesture seems deliberate, but he’s no dandy coward, not like any other onmyouji Arashi’s ever known. “You don’t think we left Edo in this weather for fun, do you?”

“No, sir! No, forgive me.”

Ameru reaches into his hitatare and produces a scroll, unfurls it on the table. A monster snarls back, more beast than man, with the green skin of an ogre and hands like talons, roaring as he tears across the page. He has black lips, a swollen jowl, and those white streaks on his hide aren’t spots, they’re paper.

“How did you know?” the mayor breathes. “Oh sir, how did you know? No one believed us.”

“Well, we certainly do,” Arashi says, and sits back on his cushions with all the pride of the shogun himself. “So tell us more.”

* *

When Nobu goes to sleep at last, with no more stories told and no more questions answered, O-Beni retires to her chambers. He’s well enough that he won’t need anyone by his bedside tonight, she’s certain, and the day has been long for both of them. So she sleeps through the night, snow and all.

And come morning, she sits in front of a mirror, brushes and anoints her hair.

When she and Nobu had lived at court in Kyoto, there had been maids to do this for her. O-Beni doesn’t miss it. Life at court was a chaos of pageantry and intrigue, so many nobles willfully ignoring the war outside the city walls, pretending that the very country was in shambles. All that pretense left her thin and stressed, and when her maids brushed her hair long strands would fall out by the root. It hadn’t suited Nobu either, but certainly didn’t show on him the way it did on her. If anything, he looked better there than he does now, skin stretched thin over his bones.

He had been a court shaman then, young, apprenticed to the Emperor’s personal onmyouji. He could read the signs of the dead, predict the turn of the weather, balance the humors of the body, send the palace poltergeists to rest. Of course, there was often a perfectly mundane explanation for the ghosts and spirits--the tanuki in the sewing room was one of them--but only often, not always. And he’d shared his work with O-Beni with quiet humor and infinite patience, so she too could know from the curl of a cloud whether it portended rain, or match antidotes to poisons before they struck a soul.

She hoped that her father would like him, but no, it was not to be. The day she turned seventeen, her father summoned her back to Kubota. Of course, it wasn’t only for her to await suitors: her father was the shogun’s man, even before Lord Kuzuryuu Ando became shogun, and she was safer in the East. But suitors came, and a match in time, though not yet consummated. O-Beni knew her father had taken her reservations into account, and not given her to a soldier.

A servant knocks at her shoji, and she sets down the brush, cuts off the reverie. “Yes?”

“My lady, I return with a message from the carpenters. They have arrived at the townships. They say the damage was not exaggerated.”

“We can send along more lumber in the morning. Anything else?”

“I regret to convey that the boy who shot the creature is dead of his wounds.”

She bows her head, makes a soft prayer. “I understand. I will send gifts to the family tomorrow. Please convey my regrets as well.”

The servant genuflects, but her silhouette persists behind the shoji. “My lady, there is more.”

More, but she won’t speak of it behind the door. O-Beni takes her meaning from the silence, and says, “Come in.”

The servant does, and shuts the shoji behind her, approaches on her knees. There is something clutched in her hand, tight, as if to prevent anyone in the halls from seeing it. “My lady, the courier also brought this. It’s a scrap of what they claim the monster wore, when it attacked.”

She uncurls her hand, and passes it to O-Beni.

Of course the cloth is familiar to both of them. O-Beni only just sent Nobu’s clothes to be cleaned, salvaged if they could. The coarse silk is an exact match, red and gold and blue, the Tsubana crest of stinging jellyfish from Nobu’s family in Kyushu.

O-Beni covers her mouth, the scrap still in her hand, flaked with new snow and dried blood.

* *

She runs through the house, but it’s already too late--Nobu’s room is empty, the fusuma slid open into the storm. He left the room neat and undisturbed, but his tracks through the ice are already filling in, and he’s long gone from the courtyard.

“Get me a horse,” she yells to the nearest servant. “Immediately! We can’t let him out like this.”

They protest. She doesn’t listen.

* *

The soldiers know better than to complain about setting out again. The snow is a mere mist now, and even if visibility is scarce no one knows these mountains better than General Arashi. Ameru rides at the fore of the unit, nose to the wind like a hound, and Arashi brings up the rear, so that no man will dare desert.

Maybe these onmyouji aren’t such a bad lot after all. This one follows orders, at least, and doesn’t shrink from the task. Probably because he was a soldier first, and knows the order of things. Arashi smiles to himself under his thunderbolt helmet, and gives the order to march.

They ride, not slow but not flagging, up the steep mountain road. Ameru takes the winding paths like he was born to them, always a hair faster than the rest of these men. Perfect. For hours they ride, and even as the men flag and grow wary Ameru does not.

At the icy cliff overlooking Kubota, he stops, raises his hand to call a halt, and Arashi accedes, just to see what he’ll do.

The wind whips out Ameru’s banner, and he twists his raised hand as if to catch the wind. The soldiers murmur, and Arashi reprimands them with a cough, lets the onmyouji do his work.

After a long moment and a low thread of chanting, he points down the slope of the mountain to the rice fields. Arashi can’t see what he sees, not through this frozen wind, but Ameru leaps off the back of his horse, right off the mountainside for the fields below.

In a sharp gust of wind and a surge of fire, Arashi catches sight of a patch of green, glowing sickly against the snow, a hundred feet down.

“Men!” he yells, shouldering his arquebus, “Get your guns out! We’ve got that demon where we want him.”

* *

Never mind the wind: O-Beni rides as fast as she can, out the gates and down Nobu’s mad trail into the fields. Whatever he’s done, whatever he’s chasing, there’s got to be a sensible explanation, and she’s never going to get it staying home.

Nobu can’t have gotten far. He doesn’t know this mountain nearly as well as she does, even with his arts, and he’s on foot, maybe ill, just himself. His footprints stagger, as deep as her horse’s hooves, and the canals of the frozen rice fields are broken, the ice not thick enough to support him but the water too shallow to slow him. He could freeze here--but then, his arrow wounds sealed--and if he is what she fears--

--a great cry, more beast than man, pierces the snow like a shot, and O-Beni races forward despite the drumming retreat in her heart.

Not one creature, but two, fight on the fields of Kitaakita tonight. One is a man O-Beni’s never seen before in thick winter kimono, a bright red hitatare and hakama standing like blood against the snow. The other is the monster the peasants described, a hulking green demon glowing with power and rage, the ofuda plastered to his skin hissing with heat against the snow. The green creature roars and pummels the man’s back like an animal, white hair whipping like a sword--

--and Nobu’s tinted spectacles perched on its misshapen nose.

O-Beni barely remembers to rein her horse to a stop. She covers her mouth, grits her teeth. It’s true. The worst is true. Nobu is the monster that ravaged the castle town. There must be more to it than that, there has to be, but all that’s wrong is undeniable, and she clutches the reins of her horse until her knuckles are paler than the snow.

She screams at the creatures to stop. Perhaps it is foolhardy, perhaps suicidal, but all O-Beni knows in that moment is that they shouldn’t shed any more blood.

But if her scream is ever given voice, the report of dozens of rifles drowns her out. The mountainside peppers with flares and gunpowder and smoke, and the two creatures spin to look at it--the red leaps out of the way, but the green one, Nobu, is hit, again and again in the chest.

O-Beni screams, again, and leaps off her horse to run to him, but Nobu isn’t down even if the ofuda on his chest are spattered with blood, and it drips, bounces on the snow. He howls like murder, and runs to the mountainside, a trail of blood behind him easier to follow than footprints. But O-Beni doesn’t stop chasing, not even when the creature leaps up ledge after ledge, up to the bare boughs of the trees. Up there, up on the cliff there’s a line of guns, and men with her father’s banner, the white bolt on black of her own clan.

“Father, no!” she yells, hoarse from the wind and the running. “Stop this!”

The gunfire stops, but the creature keeps roaring, trying to scramble up the cliff.

“Get out of here, Benihime,” her father yells from above. “That thing is a menace and I’m glad to get rid of it once and for all.”

“No! There’s more to it than that, there has to be!”

Her father shouts something else, but the creature pounds on the rock face, drowns him out in an avalanche of rock and snow. O-Beni shrieks, covers her head, and everything is a flash of ash and pain, then darkness--

* *

She wakes, to a frozen and dripping cave. A fire burns brightly, close enough to warm but not close enough to burn, and a bowl of still-melting snow sits by it, but when O-Beni tries to see more in the shadows of the cave her head aches fiercely, and she blacks out again.

Another try, a minute or an hour later, and the ice in the bowl has melted clean through, and for all the pain, the thirst is worse. O-Beni sits up, grabs for the bowl of water twice and manages on the second try.

“There’s tea,” Nobu says, crouched in the corner, barely visible at all in the dark. “I always carry some.”

O-Beni coughs, drinks the water anyway, gasping until she’s drained the bowl completely. She coughs, and Nobu might laugh, might just sigh, but that he can speak is relief in and of itself.

Once she’s done drinking she gathers all the cloth blanketing her closer to her chest. The clothes are mostly hers, but Nobu’s as well. They’re a wreck. By the firelight, she guesses that he’s naked except for the ofuda and his underclothes. His skin is gold again, all the traces of green gone, and he seems so small, so vulnerable, like a child.

“You had better tell me everything,” she says, “or I’ll chase after you again.”

This time, he does.

He comes closer to the fire, but still holds himself as if to hide in the dark. “After you left Kyoto,” he begins, “the Emperor came to my master with a request. He knew that the lords of the East would move soon, that the nation would be plunged into chaos, worse than the Onin war, worse than Shimizu’s reign of blue fire. He asked us to see if there was anything to be done, to stop the tide of war.

“So my master and I conferred about it. The spirits hate war. Most of them, anyway, and the ones that don’t hate it, you don’t want to deal with. So he thought if we could secure the spirits of the country as allies, then the land itself would reject war, and we could stop the clash before it started.

“Well,” he goes on, with a glance at the flickering fire, “it obviously didn’t work.”

O-Beni takes in the lines on his face, thickened to creases by the shadows, but doesn’t reach out and touch him like she wants to.

“We conducted a rite on New Year’s Day, when the spirits would be listening loud and clear. While the rest of the palace was celebrating, we worked in the heart of Mount Kouya where not even the monks could see. And we gathered all of the spirits we could to us, to tell them our plan, and let them know that there were those in this country that abhorred violence as much as they did, and that if we came together, these hundred years of war could end at last. And the spirits liked that idea well enough, but they weren’t the only ones listening.

“All of the nation’s rage was out that night, because there’s rage in the heart of every man and every spirit. And every one we talked to left some behind.

“But we didn’t stop. So we didn’t see that every spirit we sent off with hope left all of its fear and anger behind. Just because their hatred was for war didn’t make it not hatred.”

He clenches his fist, and only now does O-Beni let herself touch him. Their hands meet inches from the fire, hers covering his, the corners of the ofuda pasted to his skin clear at last for what they are: a seal. Not to keep the poisons out, but to keep the demon in.

“When all of the nation’s rage took form, we tried to defeat it,” he says. “My master died, and his anger became part of it too. It took his body, but I couldn’t kill him. I wouldn’t kill him. And even if I did, it wouldn’t work. So I called it into myself instead. And I won’t let it out, but sometimes...” He turns to the fire, tightens his arms around himself and turns away. “Sometimes I hate. Sometimes I hate this whole world.”

The fire gutters, but does not die, even if neither of them stokes it. Not just yet. Not just now.

* *

“What will you do?” O-Beni asks, an hour, a night, a world later, when the snow has stopped at last.

“Leave,” he says. It’s simple, to him. “I meant to go to Hokkaido, at least. I can’t stay here, not with the land as angry as it is.”

“But we’re at peace now.”

“Not truly,” he says. “No peace the Kuzuryuu create will be true peace. And you haven’t been down south. They’re preparing to unseat Lord Ando already, as soon as they’re strong enough, and if they strike before they are they’ll be wiped out. And I need to exorcise myself, but the last time I tried...” He trails off again, and doesn’t have to say why. “I need to do that alone.”

She nods. “Then I’ll help you go. If we get back to Kubota before my father, I can give you money for passage to Hokkaido.”

“You don’t have to--”

“I want to,” she says. “Don’t worry, Satoharu won’t miss it from my dowry.” She smiles, but he doesn’t, and the pain in his face doesn’t subside. “I mean it, Nobu. I believe you. And I trust you.”

He looks up at her, shrugs into his clothes. He can’t be nearly warm enough, but perhaps the demon burns him from within, staves off the chill. “Thank you,” he says, more to the cave floor than to her. “I promise, I’ll make it up to you someday.”

“You already have,” she says. “Knowing you’re alive and well is enough.”

“Alive,” he corrects, “but not well.”

“I suppose.”

They douse the last of the fire, ready themselves to leave the cave. It’s a long walk to Kubota, longer without a horse, but surely they’ll make it, and even if her father is there he won’t fire on Nobu in his own home.

“Tsubana!” someone yells, howling like the wind over the fields. “Tsubana, come out and fight!”

Nobu freezes, but O-Beni only knows that voice from grunts of pain. It’s the man in red, who Nobu fought hours ago. How is he still searching? But Nobu’s reaction is cold horror, enough to make him shudder against her side.

“Ameru,” he whispers. “Barase Ameru. That was him, wasn’t it. When I--when I lost control in the fields.”

O-Beni could ask more, but Ameru keeps shouting, as if he knows they’re here. Well, obviously he does.

It doesn’t matter.

O-Beni turns to Nobu, takes both of his hands in hers and presses them to her forehead. “Go,” she says. “Go, once you think it’s safe. I’m sorry I can’t help more than this.”

“Lady O-Beni, don’t, he’s dangerous--”

“Not to me,” she says. And it’s true. She kisses his knuckles, and leaves him in the cave, and walks out into the snow.

Sure enough, the man in red is waiting, like a stain against the snow. She hadn’t had time to see before, but aside from the wear of the fight he’s well-made, carries himself like so many officers O-Beni’s seen in her life but there’s something more to him. Hunter, she thinks, and sure enough, he has the light eyes of a wolf.

“My lady,” he says, all politeness. “Your father is looking for you.”

“Good,” she says. “Then you are to take me to him immediately.”

He looks more taken aback than she’d expect, but still somehow amused. “Once I deal with that menace in there, I’ll take you anywhere you want.”

She shakes her head. “No. You will take me to Kubota now. Unless you have good intentions for this supposed menace, in which case I will hear you out, but I’d much rather go home.”

“My intentions are nothing but noble,” Ameru says.

“Then, please. Go on.”

“I know what he’s carrying. I know I don’t look it, but I have a share of the art myself.” As if to prove it, he produces an ofuda from his hitatare, holds it trapped between his fingers. “But if he can trap the spirits in himself, then so can I.”

Something drops into the pit of O-Beni’s stomach. “And you’ll take it from him?”

“That’s right, my lady. We can all have what we want. You want to go home, he wants us off his back, and I want his power. I think that’s fair.”

She imagines it: Ameru grown like her Nobu into an abomination, more beast than man, tearing through the stone of the land of the rising sun.

“No,” she says. “I don’t. I think you can take me to Kubota now, and leave the talk of power to those who know better than I.”

He growls, somehow more bestial than Nobu’s even as the green beast, and he charges past her toward the mouth of the cave--

--but Nobu is gone, and this time, left no tracks. The husks of the logs in the fire crumble, down to ash.

* *

“I can’t believe you let him get away!” her father yells, but O-Beni sits there and listens. It’s a passing squall, just like his name. Nothing but noise and wrath, the exact kind of world Nobu wanted to forestall. That world is her father, and he is only thunder and bluster.

So she sits, and listens patiently, and waits him out.

“He needs to be put down like a dog, not let free! What’s gotten into you? What kind of life are you living while I’m away? How am I going to explain this to your husband?”

“He’s not my husband,” she corrects, “not yet.”

“Oh, and you’re what, going to marry this--this--,” he can’t find the word, and she can’t blame him, “this beast?”

“Better the beast with a man in his heart than the man with a beast in his,” she says.

Her father loses control of his words, then, and starts smashing things, but she doesn’t worry. She can clean it up. She always does.

* *

With no one to chase, and Nobu long gone, General Arashi takes his entourage back to Edo, and life at Kubota returns to normal. No more snowstorms come, though the rain falls thick and perpetual, and winter tapers toward thaw. The branches regain their color, one leaf at a time, and still O-Beni waits, lets the days pass in the relative peace of these fortress walls. She sees to the grievances of the peasants, the patrols of the soldiers, and all is calm.

“My lady,” a servant says, beyond her shoji on the rainiest day so far, when the last of the snow has gone from all but the highest peaks, “you have a visitor.”

This late in the day, that’s the cause for some concern, but as long as he was announced, it can’t be too awful. “I’ll see him in the audience chamber. Did he give his name?”

“Furukawa, my lady.”

She doesn’t know of any clan in the area with that name, but it doesn’t sound so uncommon. So she straightens her hair and makes her way downstairs, to sit on her father’s dais and see what needs to be done.

Furukawa turns to her and bows as she enters. He’s a dark-skinned man with a patch over his eye, like the warlord just to the east of here but much, much older. “Lady O-Beni,” he says. “I thought you should know.”

“Should know what?” she asks, taken aback at the lack of introduction.

Furukawa smirks, a tense private smile as he casts out his arm. “That we know where he is.”

On the arc of his arm, an owl takes wing, carrying a parcel in its talons. O-Beni stands her ground, and the owl wheels overhead, drops the parcel into her waiting palms.

It smells of Nobu’s tea.

* *