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The Bell

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In retrospect, the whole thing was doomed from the very beginning. Casting the largest bell in the world was hubris. Installing it at the Kamo shrine was ludicrous. Inviting the entire of the court to its inaugural ringing was utter insanity.

When the Bureau of Divination met for the first time after the New Year, Seimei made his opinions known. His colleagues had exclaimed at his cynicism and expressed their dismay at his attitude. Didn't he know that the bell was a great and worthy work? Couldn't he see that the dual shrines would benefit from such a wonder? It was not just for the glory of the deities and the ancestors, or for the purpose of attracting more pilgrims to the shrine—it was also, they clucked, a way to ensure protection from demons.

"Indeed," said Seimei, and bowed to his colleagues before getting up and strolling out of the meeting. He paid no heed to the startled squawks of protest he left in his wake.

As expected, they dispatched Hiromasa to bring him round. Poor Hiromasa, who so eagerly allowed himself to be a pawn in these silly, constant squabbles between Seimei and the Bureau.

"They use you," Seimei told him one afternoon in the second month. The weather was still cold enough to steal breath, and they cuddled beneath layers of padded silks and brocade—the dried grass combination of Seimei's winter robes and the more optimistic plum-pink spring combination colours of Hiromasa's clothing.

Hiromasa stretched, his unbound hair tickling over his shoulders as he moved. "I don't mind. Isn't that why I'm here?"

Seimei gave him a startled look. "To be used? No. Though I am shameless enough to take advantage of your presence here, I would not like to think I was using you."

"Ah, but Seimei, being used—being useful—is the lot of all courtiers. It is the natural way of life. We all need order and hierarchy."

"Being useful and being used are two different things."

Hiromasa sat up, shivering a little in the cold air. He leaned forward to draw the scatter of their clothes together, piling them over their makeshift bed. "It's all the same to me. The Bureau is too frightened to send messengers here, so they send me. What did you do to their last boy?"

Seimei summoned the heat from the brazier, directing it to wrap around Hiromasa to keep him warm. "Nothing. The shikigami persuaded him I was not at home."

"I heard the boy was terrified out of his wits. He would not be afraid of those beautiful ladies you conjure from blossoms."

"There are other forms a shikigami can take." Seimei allowed himself a half smile at the memory of the messenger fleeing from the gates pursued by two hook-beaked tengu. "People always see what they want to see, Hiromasa. Very few visitors here ever see the reality."

Hiromasa glanced at him. "What do I see?"

Seimei nudged aside the layers of their robes, and smiled. "You see me."

* * *

 

By the time the fourth month arrived, Hiromasa had almost been successful in his role as peacemaker. Seimei attended Bureau meetings again, even if he sat in blank-faced silence throughout, and in return, his colleagues deigned to recognise him in public rather than shun him as they'd done before. This made little difference to Seimei, who didn't care if people recognised him at court or not, but it pleased Hiromasa, and so it was for his sake that Seimei held his tongue and smoothed out his temper.

But when it came to the Kamo Festival and the inaugural ringing of the new bell, Seimei refused to go. Hiromasa called upon him before noon to find the gates shut. There was no answer to his shouts. At length, dressed in his court finery and with a hollyhock tucked into his lacquered tail-cap, Hiromasa climbed the wall into Seimei's garden.

Always a wilderness, now it seemed impenetrable. Hiromasa fought through whippy, scratchy shrubs that snagged his silks and pulled his hair and tore at his skin. He floundered through boggy ground, spattering mud over his boots and up his hakama. His cloak ripped when it caught on a branch. Gritting his teeth, Hiromasa engaged in battle with the garden and finally emerged victorious, collapsing in a heap in front of the steps to the house.

Seimei stood on the veranda, his hunting costume immaculate, his expression caught between slightly amused and slightly puzzled.

"Seimei!" Hiromasa pushed himself to his feet and staggered over to him, conscious of the sight he presented. "I will not go to the Kamo shrine without you."

"I thought you came here to tell me I had to attend by order of His Majesty and His Excellency and the entire of the Bureau of Divination."

"No." Hiromasa sank down on the steps, loosening the collar of his torn cloak and examining the wet, mud-stained ruin of his expensive silks. "I should have told you that, but I wanted you to know that if you don't want to go, then I won't go either."

"Oh, Hiromasa, you are clever," Seimei said with a chuckle.

Hiromasa blinked. "I am?"

"Yes." Seimei came down the steps, pausing to offer Hiromasa his hand. "Well, shall we go?"

"Go?" Hiromasa put his hand in Seimei's and swung himself to his feet. "Go where?"

Seimei smiled. "The Kamo shrine, of course."

* * *

 

Crowds of people blocked the way out of the city to the north-east. Ox-carts and carriages jammed the roads, and the imperial envoys made slow progress with their offerings.

"A bad sign," Seimei murmured, leading Hiromasa on foot in the opposite direction. "The imperial envoys should have reached the shrine an hour ago. It will be unlucky."

They took a circuitous route through the city, avoiding a direct north-easterly path. "The north-east is ill-starred today," Seimei said as they scrambled through the ruins of a derelict estate. "I warned them three months ago. This will be a disaster."

"But the bell will protect the shrine and the people, won't it?" Hiromasa stumbled over a fallen branch and sighed as his cloak tore even further. "Bells scare away demons. Surely the largest bell in the world would scare every demon for miles around and drive them into the mountains. They say the bell has a sound like rolling thunder. Maybe the bell will terrify the demons so much, they will flee and drown in Lake Biwa!"

"Most demons cannot drown." Seimei paused to unhook Hiromasa's cloak from the branch. "But it is a nice thought."

They emerged at the north-west of Heian-Kyo and made their way due east towards the Kamo shrine, joining the throng of people pushing and shoving their way into the sacred ground for a glimpse of the bell. Hiromasa's shredded cloak was stepped on and dirtied beyond belief by the time he and Seimei managed to wriggle through the crowd to a good vantage point.

The imperial envoys arrived, looking bad-tempered and hot. They paraded into the shrine with their gifts from His Majesty and proceeded into the Hall of Offerings. The crowd jostled and murmured, admiring the costly gifts of silk and ginseng as they passed, but their interest soon waned and attention was turned to the bell.

Taller than five men and cast in a dark, speckled bronze, the bell hung silent from an immense platform built specially to take its weight. Beside it was suspended half a tree trunk with one end wrapped in padded silk. The pilgrims pressed closer, commenting on the size of the bell and speculating on how loud it would ring.

"Like thunder," Seimei murmured, and Hiromasa glanced at him.

The crowd peered beneath the bell, remarking on the shadows inside. How deep it must be, how much effort to cast! And the decoration down one side—a trifle plain, perhaps, for such an important shrine, but nevertheless attractive.

Seimei drew in his breath. "The fools. That is not decoration."

"It isn't?" Hiromas stared across the crowd at the stylistic lines and meanders on the bell. "What is it, then?"

"A spell." Seimei narrowed his eyes. "An incomplete one."

Before Hiromasa could absorb this remark, the imperial envoys came out of the Hall of Offerings and looked towards the bell. A monk, young and muscular, strode up onto the bell platform. The crowd fell silent, everyone eagerly anticipating the first strike against the largest bell in the world.

"Wait," Seimei whispered beneath his breath, "wait..."

The monk heaved back on the tree trunk then pushed forward. The crowd held their breath. With such a powerful swing behind it, surely this first note would shake the ground and echo around the skies.

The trunk hit the bell, and there was nothing but silence. Not even the softest thud of the padded wood against the bronze, and certainly not the deafening peal of the bell.

Shocked murmurs spread throughout the crowd. The imperial envoys exchanged glances. The monk scratched his head and examined the end of the trunk.

Hiromasa leaned closer to Seimei. "What..."

Seimei held up a hand. "Wait."

The monk approached the bell and rapped it with his knuckles. A note rang out, almost inaudible at first, but then growing, rumbling, until the bell started to swing in its moorings, rocking back and forth, a single note booming out.

A crack appeared in the bronze beneath the spell. The louder the bell rang, the wider the crack became, until with a sharp, brutal reverberation, the bell split in two. The halves fell outwards, crashing through the platform.

Seimei flicked his fingers, and the halves smashed onto bare earth rather than into the screaming, shoving crowd. As the bronze struck the ground, a sound like a clap of thunder rang around the shrine. From the heart of the bell a demon erupted, trailing bronze and gold draperies as it shot high into the air.

"Ah. There it is." Seimei sounded almost pleased.

Hiromasa stared at him. "Seimei! Do something!"

"Isn't that why I came here?" From his sleeve, Seimei took a square of paper with a pentacle inked upon it. He touched his fingers to it, murmuring, then raised it to his lips before tossing it towards the demon.

Hiromasa shrank back as the demon roared, its voice like thunder, like the clanging of a huge temple bell, and then Seimei's spell fastened over the demon's mouth. The demon clawed at its face, twisting and writhing, but the spell seemed stuck tight. Silenced, the demon dropped between the two halves of the bell and hurled itself back and forth. The bronze hummed but did not ring, and the demon went into a frenzy, striking itself harder against the halves until with a shimmer of frustration, it merged into the fabric of the shattered bell.

"And that," said Seimei with a trace of satisfaction in his voice, "is the end of that."

As the crowd regained their collective courage and began to surround the broken bell, exclaiming and chattering all at once, Hiromasa wiped his brow and turned to Seimei. "How did you know?"

Seimei chuckled. "Hiding in plain sight is the oldest trick in the book. Where better for a demon to reside than in the last place anyone would think to look? Especially when the bell was left incomplete and the protective spells unfinished."

Hiromasa shook his head. "I would never have expected such a thing. A demon living inside a bell! And in such a holy shrine!"

Before Seimei could respond, the abbot scurried over to them, wringing his hands and ashen-faced. He bowed hurriedly. "Lord Seimei, it seems we have you to thank for averting disaster."

Seimei almost-smiled and said nothing.

Thrown into confusion by this reaction, the abbot blustered and made excuses for a while before coming to the point: "What do we do now?"

With a sigh, Seimei eyed the shattered halves of bronze. "Melt it down and cast a dozen bells from it. The demon won't bother you again."

The abbot bowed, effusive in his thanks, but Seimei brushed him aside and made his way through the crowd. The pilgrims and envoys fell back to let him pass, and after a moment, Hiromasa followed.

As they left the shrine, Hiromasa said, "You knew this was going to happen."

Seimei raised his eyebrows. "I told the Bureau months ago, but they didn't want to listen."

"You could have told them again."

"Why?" Halting his footsteps, Seimei faced him with a gentle smile. "Like the demon in the bell, all they wanted was to make a big noise. They just wanted to talk and puff themselves up and declare their wisdom in voices as loud as thunder. But sometimes, Hiromasa, actions speak louder than words."