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Chrysalis

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Hiromasa was bored. He leaned back where he sat, clasping his hands around his ankles, and stared from the floor up to the ceiling. The entire of the north-facing wall of Seimei's study was covered in maps, charts, diagrams, and spells. Where the good people of Heian-Kyo might hang an elegant piece of calligraphy, Seimei had plastered a set of pages torn from an arcane volume and annotated with slashing red ink.

Heaving a discreet sigh, Hiromasa rocked forward and onto his knees. A quick glance towards the low writing desk showed Seimei still frowning over a constellation chart and a page of figures and scribbles. His forefinger, stained with black ink, tapped against the page, leaving greying smudges upon the paper.

Careful not to disturb Seimei from his work, Hiromasa got to his feet and investigated the contents of the study. He'd never really dared to look before, but with Seimei seated only a few feet away, it seemed a tacit sort of approval. Ignoring the books and scrolls, Hiromasa poked through the clutter of objects on top of a cabinet: A length of ribbon; a dusty ball of incense; ink sticks in various colours; a speckled feather; the crackling-dried shed skin of a snake.

Hiromasa let his hand stray to the top drawer of the cabinet. Making sure his action was blocked by his body, he eased the drawer open and peered inside. He wasn't sure what he'd been hoping to discover—a pillow book, perhaps, where Seimei recorded all of his secrets?—but instead he found a small, rectangular box.

He drew it out, holding the box in both hands as he looked at it. Made of sandalwood, the design worked upon it was intricate and unusual. Hiromasa raised the box to his nose, sniffing delicately, but could no longer discern the fragrance. With gentle hands, he pressed the tiny catch and lifted the lid. A scrap of silk spilled out, and he touched it, feeling its fragility. Edged with gold and dyed a deep red, it covered something nestling inside the box.

His curiosity sharpened, Hiromasa cast a glance over his shoulder, his fingers stroking the object through the concealing layer of silk. Seimei continued to work, apparently oblivious to the rest of the world.

Hiromasa turned back to the box. With tender care, he peeled back the red silk to reveal a wizened brown stick.

He stared. No, it wasn't a stick. It had ridges and hollows, a shape quite unlike a stick, and it was split in two down the middle. Closer examination showed him that it was, in fact, a chrysalis—albeit of a type he'd never seen before.

Cautious now, Hiromasa prodded it. The chrysalis rolled on its bed of silk, giving off a faint rattle. The noise was so slight as to be like an ear of wheat bending in the breeze, but Seimei heard it and said, "What are you doing, Hiromasa?"

Guilty instinct made Hiromasa jump and turn, concealing the box behind his back. He winced as he felt the brush of the chrysalis against his hand, and then he gritted his teeth and closed his eyes as he heard the dried object skitter across the polished wooden floorboards of the study.

"Ah," said Seimei.

He didn't sound angry. Cautiously relieved, Hiromasa opened his eyes. "I'm sorry, Seimei. I didn't mean to let it fall."

"I'm sure you didn't." Seimei glanced at the chrysalis for a moment before returning his attention to his work. "Never mind, there's no harm done. If you'd replace the chrysalis where you found it..."

Hiromasa crouched to retrieve the chrysalis. It felt brittle yet warm when he touched it, and he let it tumble across his palm. His curiosity piqued further, he asked, "It is a chrysalis, then? Not anything else?"

Seimei paused and looked over at him, raising his eyebrows. "What else would it be? It is a chrysalis. Nothing more, nothing less."

"But it's in a box. An expensive box, and old, too. And this silk..." Hiromasa gave up on his attempt to be subtle. "Come on, Seimei, tell me. This must have special significance, otherwise you wouldn't keep it."

"Would I not?" Seimei bent over the chart, measuring distances with his fingers before dipping his brush into the ink and recording his observations.

With a huff of displeasure, Hiromasa returned the chrysalis to the box, but kept the lid open. He turned it one way and then the other, but no matter how he looked at it, it didn't make sense. Why would Seimei keep a dusty old chrysalis?

A flash of movement and colour from the garden snagged his attention, and Hiromasa glanced up. Outside, Mitsumushi stepped lightly over the stream, catching up her flowing blue draperies. She danced, giggling as she spun, and then she knelt to gather flowers.

Hiromasa almost dropped the box a second time. Mitsumushi! When she wasn't a girl, she was a butterfly... He stared at the chrysalis. Was this hers? Had she crawled out of this tiny shell? Was it even possible?

Determined to find out, Hiromasa began to stride across the room towards the veranda, his gaze fixed on Mitsumushi.

"Hiromasa." The note of command in Seimei's voice made him halt. He heard the clatter of the brush set down, and the whisper of silk as Seimei shifted position, and then came his voice again, warm and deep: "Since you are unable to curb your curiosity, I will tell you the story of that box."

"And the chrysalis." Hiromasa faced him, but gave Mitsumushi another glance before he went to join Seimei. "The box was made to protect the chrysalis, yes?"

Seimei chuckled. "Perhaps. Perhaps not."

"Perhaps not? Why must you be so vague with your answers, Seimei?"

"Ah, Hiromasa. The world is a vague place, everything within it fleeting and imperfect, mutable and dangerous."

Hiromasa sniffed. "So you say. I find it perfectly charming, most of the time."

"That is because you are a very good man who thinks very good things about people who are very unworthy." Seimei's eyes flashed with some indefinable emotion.

Embarrassed, Hiromasa ducked his head and nudged the open box onto the writing table. "Tell me about the chrysalis."

Seimei drew the box closer, moving his papers and writing implements aside to give it his full attention. "The box," he said, his brows lifting slightly as he ran his fingertips over the interlaced design, "is Chinese. Very fine workmanship."

"It's sandalwood." Hiromasa leaned forward and tapped the lid. "But it no longer has its scent."

"Due to its age." Seimei tucked an overhang of red silk back into the box, his gaze distant, thoughtful. "It was carved two hundred years ago by a monk in Xi Ming monastery in Chang'an as a receptacle for this chrysalis."

Hiromasa resisted the urge to glance over his shoulder towards the garden and Mitsumushi. "Why?"

Seimei gave him a patient look. "Why do you place things in boxes, Hiromasa?"

"To keep the room tidy. To protect the object inside it."

"Any other reason?"

Hiromasa frowned. He didn't usually keep things in boxes. He preferred his belongings to be on display so he knew where to find them. Clothes, now they could be folded away in chests, and writing paper was kept in miniature cabinets, which he supposed was a kind of box. The thought of writing paper reminded him of pillow books, and he said, "To keep something secret."

"Indeed." Seimei's tone was neutral. He took the chrysalis from its bed of silk, holding it gently between thumb and forefinger. "The monk at Xi Ming woke one morning to find this chrysalis hanging from the rafters above his head. It was not yet the season for butterflies, and the monk knew the chrysalis had not been there the previous evening. Overnight, it seemed, the chrysalis had formed."

Hiromasa shivered. "That's so creepy, Seimei. What kind of demon does that?"

"That is the very question the monk asked himself." Seimei turned the brittle husk back and forth, studying it from every angle. "He removed the chrysalis from the roof beam and took it to the abbot. A council was called, and the monks discussed this unusual event. Some said they had seen evil portents in the flight of birds; others cast the I Ching without satisfactory result. One thing was for certain: this was no ordinary chrysalis, and from it would hatch no ordinary creature."

"A demon." Hiromasa huddled into his court cloak, then sat up straight as a thought occurred to him. "Wait. Sandalwood repels moths and other insects, doesn't it?"

Seimei smiled. "It does. So now you see there is another reason to place something in a box."

Hiromasa stared at the chrysalis. "To keep it contained."

"And this is what the monk did." Dropping the chrysalis back into box, Seimei closed the lid with a loud snap.

The sound made Hiromasa jump. He swallowed, gazing at Seimei with wide eyes. "What happened?"

"He forgot about it." Seimei waved his hand in a lazy curving gesture, passing the width of the patterned white sleeve of his hunting costume over the box. A heartbeat later, the box had vanished, leaving Hiromasa staring blankly at the table.

In the moment of silence that followed, Seimei made minor adjustments to the fall of his sleeve. "For years the monk went about his business without giving any thought to the box and what lived inside it. Neglected and forgotten, the box and its contents waited... and then one day, a visiting priest from a foreign delegation came to Xi Ming monastery to learn certain esoteric teachings from the monk."

This part of the story reminded Hiromasa of something. "A foreign delegation?"

Seimei inclined his head. "The visiting priest was Kukai, and the monk who became his teacher was Hui Guo."

Hiromasa brightened. "So the chrysalis really is..."

Seimei held up a hand. "Do you want to hear the end of the tale?"

"Please."

"Very well." He shot Hiromasa an amused look. "Kukai stayed with Hui Guo for two years until the monk's death. It is said that when Hui Guo first greeted Kukai, his welcome was full of rapture. Hui Guo's knowledge was so vast, he feared he would never be able to pass it on to a disciple; but Kukai soaked up wisdom and retained it, interpreted it, as no other student had done before. It was a miracle, some said, while others whispered that devilry was afoot."

Hiromasa considered this. "But Kukai was no ordinary priest, otherwise he wouldn't have been selected to accompany the delegation to China."

"Perhaps."

"You always say 'perhaps' when you mean something else," Hiromasa complained. "Seimei! That's so annoying. Why can't you just say what you mean?"

Seimei hid his smile behind his hand. "To return to our tale... Shortly before Hui Guo's death, he remembered the sandalwood box and what it contained. He sent a temple boy to discover its whereabouts, then when the box was brought to him and he'd checked its seals were still in place, he made a gift of it to Kukai."

As he listened to the story, Hiromasa sat back. He felt something sharp and uncomfortable dig into his flank, and moved sideways with a frown. Glancing down, he scooped up the offending object and gasped when he realised that he held the sandalwood box. Alarmed, Hiromasa dropped it back onto the floor, giving it a push to send it towards Seimei.

Seimei picked it up and balanced it on Hiromasa's knee. "Hui Guo asked Kukai not to open the box until he was safely back in Japan, and Kukai agreed.

"We may imagine the curiosity Kukai felt throughout his long journey home. For days he stroked the box, wondering what was inside. For weeks he contemplated the spells and seals holding it shut. For months he waited, mindful of his promise to Hui Guo. Each morning he would wake to see the box unopened; each night he would tuck it beneath his pillow-roll—and with each passing day, the box grew heavier and heavier, until Kukai could no longer carry it."

"The chrysalis had hatched," Hiromasa suggested, his voice little more than a whisper. "And it had hatched a monster!"

Seimei's smile twitched, but he made no comment. Instead he continued, "By the time the delegation arrived home, Kukai had to transport the box by cart. Still he slept with the box beneath his head... and sometimes he would listen closely, and sometimes he would hear something moving inside."

Hiromasa stared at the box, knowing that its quivering, rocking movements were due to the uncontrollable trembling in his leg. "He opened it."

Seimei nodded, his eyes gleaming. "Almost a year to the day of Hui Guo's death, Kukai took the box and knelt before it, prayed over it, then undid the spells binding it and sliced open the seals holding it shut."

Slowly he turned the box to face Hiromasa. "Open it, Hiromasa. Open it, and see what Kukai saw."

More than a little wary, but certain that Seimei would save him if anything truly nasty leapt out at him, Hiromasa put his hands to the box and flicked open the catch. He cracked open the lid by a hair's breadth, and nothing happened. Feeling braver, he opened it a little more, and caught the glimmer of blue, of orange. Curious now, he lifted the lid all of the way to reveal a familiar shape resting upon the red silk—a swallow-tailed butterfly of unusual colouring: "Mitsumushi!"

The butterfly fluttered out, dipping and swaying around him as he turned to watch her flight. Hiromasa beamed with delight as he followed her delicate movements. "I knew it was Mitsumushi's chrysalis. But Seimei, why do you keep it?"

"So we remember where she came from. To remind ourselves of how long she waited before she emerged from the darkness."

Hiromasa tore his gaze from the butterfly. "What is she, really?"

Seimei smiled. "A dream."