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Scent

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Eighth Month, Fifteenth Day

The day of the Mid-Autumn Festival had been spoiled by heavy cloud. During the morning, black thunderheads hung over the city to the east. Rain fell in the afternoon, but the cloudburst was not enough to clear the skies.

The air still felt damp, warm and suffocating, when the Chancellor's party began. In place of the absent moon the courtiers praised bright-shining lanterns. Wine cups bearing poems on fine paper floated along the rain-swollen stream dividing the Chancellor's garden. Silk sleeves coloured dim by lack of moonlight dipped and swayed as guests reached into the water to retrieve the poems.

The Chancellor was in good spirits, witty and expansive. His gentlemen shared his mood, flirting with the Empress' ladies. Laughter spread around the garden. Bets were made, promises whispered, trysts arranged.

Minamoto no Hiromasa sat drinking, cheerful despite the sodden heat. By seating himself away from the banks of the stream, he'd avoided the necessity of capping any poems that came floating his way. Relieved of the burden of being clever, a task he found onerous, he could simply enjoy himself.

As the night drew on, conversation ebbed. A warm breeze rattled through the leaves on the trees, prompting a lady to remark that soon the leaves would fall to mark the arrival of winter.

Her words cast a sweet melancholy. The guests sighed and drank a toast to winter.

"What if winter doesn't come?" a gentleman asked.

The Chancellor chuckled. "It will come. Winter is inevitable."

"But if it doesn't?" The gentleman was persistent, and seemed very drunk.

"Then we will summon it." The Chancellor gestured for more sake. He looked around at his guests, peering through the flickering lantern-light until his gaze rested on Hiromasa. The Chancellor called out, "Lord Hiromasa, give us the benefit of your knowledge. A yin yang master can alter the weather, can he not? He can call forth the rain and make clouds scatter. Summoning the winter would be an easy task."

Hiromasa paused, the wine cup halfway to his lips. He wasn't certain that Seimei could control the weather or the cycle of seasons. Certainly his friend could conjure clouds and mists and eerie bolts of lightning, but Hiromasa knew they were somehow made from illusions.

The Chancellor and his companions waited for a response. Hiromasa struggled for a coherent answer through the layers of drunkenness swimming in his head. "The seasons change when they are ready. Not even a yin yang master could persuade them."

A ripple of laughter passed through the gathering. The Chancellor didn't smile. "Persuade? A yin yang master does not persuade. He demands. He orders demons to return to hell and spirits to pass to the next life. Persuade, indeed. What nonsense!"

"Lord Seimei is very persuasive."

"And very demanding?" suggested a lady.

The women hid behind their fans and giggled. The men sniggered. Hiromasa felt a blush burn his face, and was glad of the darkness. Embarrassment made him bold, and he said, "Your Excellency should have invited Lord Seimei tonight. Then he could tell you himself and you would not need to rely on my poor answers."

"Bah." The Chancellor drew the edges of his cloak around him. "Yin yang masters do not belong at social gatherings, no matter how persuasive they might be. Soldiers and scholars can put aside their swords and books for a party, but a yin yang master can hardly set aside his propensity for seeing demons. It is said that Abe no Seimei attracts demons the way moths are drawn to lanterns. I do not want demons at one of my parties."

Hiromasa glanced around the darkened garden. There was probably a demon of some sort amongst them even now, but he decided not to say anything. He would only be misunderstood, and he had no desire to insult the Chancellor, his daughter the Empress, or any of the other high-ranking guests.

Mention of Seimei made him feel restless. Hiromasa's good cheer slipped away, leaving him frowning into his cup of sake. What the Chancellor had said wasn't quite true. There were plenty of yin yang masters within the Bureau of Divination who were often invited to social gatherings. With a vast knowledge of Chinese literature both arcane and secular, yin yang masters were usually entertaining conversationalists.

But few people sought out Seimei for anything but official business. He was too sharp, too clever, too different. His powers as a yin yang master made people fear him, and his obvious boredom with courtly manners and disdain for those of his own rank and higher ensured his alienation. He was, however, an ideal target for gossip.

Hiromasa always felt slighted by the gossip, offended on Seimei's behalf. He felt annoyed now. Putting down his cup, he got to his feet, swaying a little. "Very well," he said, ignoring the laughter around him, "I will ask Seimei to summon the winter. He will persuade it to come. Bring me an inkstone and I will write to him this instant."

The Chancellor snorted, his moustache twitching. "Who will carry your message, Lord Hiromasa? Not any of my servants, or any of yours. The gates are closed until first light. But perhaps you have other, more esoteric ways of communicating with Lord Seimei."

Now Hiromasa knew the laughter was directed at him. Flushing with humiliation and bold with drunkenness, he lifted his chin. "I will take the message myself, Your Excellency – and yes, I will deliver it via secret means!"

The ladies gasped and twittered, but the men guffawed. The Chancellor made a shooing gesture. "Go then, Lord Hiromasa. Brave the moonless night for the sake of truth – if that is indeed why you wish to visit Lord Seimei…"

"Of course he goes for the sake of truth," a lady trilled. "A lover would be more circumspect."

Hiromasa turned and hurried from the Chancellor's garden, mocking laughter still crowding at his back.

* * * *

Hiromasa climbed the city wall, fumbling and slipping in the darkness, buoyed on by his anger and by the desire to see Seimei. The night felt alive and animal around him, too warm for a man to go climbing. He lay on top of the wall and rested a moment, breathing in the scent of bruised foliage and his own sweat. Then he lowered himself to the ground outside the city, his descent slow and careful.

He'd given little thought to the end of his journey. Hiromasa told himself he had come to ask a simple question. He had not come because of love. Despite what gossip said, he and Seimei were not, and never had been, lovers. If prompted, Hiromasa would admit to a deep affection for his friend. If he knew Seimei shared his feelings, he would be willing to deepen that affection further.

But reading Seimei was like glancing into a mirror: sometimes bright, sometimes clouded, the image always untouchable.

Hiromasa knew himself for a simple man, despite his family connections. He liked matters straightforward and uncomplicated. Seimei was neither of these things. He was oblique and mysterious, fascinating and frightening. Hiromasa's unformed desire for his friend partly came from the attraction of opposites.

Of course, Seimei was beautiful, too. Enchanting, some would say, his deep purring voice at odds with his pale, narrow looks. Rumour said he was the son of a fox woman. Hiromasa had asked once if the rumour was true.

Seimei had laughed at him. "Do you think I look like a fox?"

Hiromasa couldn't reply. He'd never seen a fox in human shape; how could he know if his friend resembled one?

The gates to Seimei's house opened for him as he approached. He stepped over the high lintel and into the tangled garden. The night was softer here, the darkness intense with the scent of flowers. Not even the Chancellor's garden smelled so sweet. Hiromasa stumbled past whispering grasses and remembered too late the azalea shrub on the twist of the path. Its dry leaves brushed his outstretched hands; like a blind man he felt his way towards the house.

Not a single light shone along the verandas. Realising this, Hiromasa halted, his eyes wide with disappointment. He hadn't expected to find the master of the house asleep. Perhaps he should leave now, before whatever invisible threads of protection his friend had spun around his property roused him from dreams.

Seimei spoke from the darkness. "Did you know, Hiromasa, tonight there's a taboo on travelling to the northeast."

"I know."

"That's very unlucky." A single light gleamed, a lantern round like the moon. Seimei stood beside it, eyes dark in shadow. "You invite disaster."

Hiromasa waded through a cluster of white flowers. He pulled the head from one and carried it with him up the steps onto the corridor. "You will protect me."

"Perhaps." The breeze set the lantern rocking. Slashes of light flickered across Seimei's hunting costume, white-shadow-white. He reached up and stilled the lantern, watching Hiromasa approach. "It's very late. How did you get past the gates?"

"The walls are crumbling in places, covered in vines. I climbed over."

"Unaccompanied and in the dark? You surprise me, Hiromasa." At last Seimei gave ground, retreating back along the corridor to assume his usual place on the veranda. He sank to the floor beside a jar of sake and a single jade cup.

"I wanted to see you." Hiromasa sat, arranging his silks around him. He eyed the wine jar, waiting for a second cup to appear. When Seimei didn't offer him a drink, he dipped his head in embarrassment and annoyance. It had been a long walk in the dark. He was thirsty.

Unfurling his hand, he studied the flower he'd picked. A white chrysanthemum. He couldn't recall the meaning of the plant, but the snowy petals and golden centre seemed cheerful against his black robes. Shaking off his irritation at Seimei's lack of hospitality, he smiled at his friend then cast a curious glance around.

The lantern had moved. Now it hung above them, unanchored. Hiromasa frowned. Maybe it had been there all along. Or maybe…

"You wanted to see me. You can see me now," Seimei said dryly, recalling his attention. "Was there a particular reason that brought you here at such an hour?"

Hiromasa smiled again, remembering his mission. "I have a question. Can you influence the weather?"

Seimei looked startled. "Hiromasa, you broke a taboo and disregarded the laws of the city just to ask me about the weather?"

"It's important."

"To a farmer, perhaps." Seimei's silks rustled as he gave a dismissive shrug. He changed the subject. "You came here from the Chancellor's party."

Hiromasa had long ago given up being surprised that his friend seemed to know everything. He nodded. "We talked about the weather."

Seimei quirked an eyebrow. A faint smile warmed his lips. "How very tedious it must have been. Were there no princesses for you to admire, no ladies-in-waiting to flatter?"

"Of course. But I wanted to see you." Even brave with drink, Hiromasa thought his announcement sounded too forward. He hastened to excuse himself. "I thought we could watch the moon together."

Seimei sighed. "There is no moon tonight."

The chrysanthemum rolled off Hiromasa's lap as he leaned towards his friend. "Can't you make the clouds go away?"

"Why would I wish to do that?"

Hiromasa felt a snap of frustration. He hated it when Seimei went blank and treated him as if he were just another court noble. "So we can admire the moon's beauty and recite poems to it."

Still calm, Seimei picked up the chrysanthemum head. He tore at the petals, letting them drift to the floor. "I have no desire to listen to poetry tonight," he said. "Neither, I think, does the moon."

"You are cruel, Seimei." Hiromasa reached out and took the wine jar. It wasn't quite empty. He tilted it, savouring the trickle of sake across his tongue.

"And you, my dear Hiromasa, are drunk."

Hiromasa set down the jar. "Am I? Dear, I mean. Am I dear to you?"

Seimei looked at him sharply, his posture tense and wary. Then he stood, dropping the mutilated chrysanthemum. He made a gesture, and the lantern floated away into the garden to light the path to the gate. "You should return home. I will summon a shikigami to accompany you."

"No." The dismissal made Hiromasa angry. It was always this way between them, the courtier and the prince, the acolyte and the priest. Seimei never gave any thought to his feelings. Confusion spun inside him, darkness and desire stirred as much by the bruised chrysanthemum on the floor as by Seimei's sudden uncertainty.

Hiromasa reached out and grasped a handful of his friend's hakama. The silk felt like water, cool and flowing around his fingers. He seized more cloth, afraid that Seimei would drift away from him. "Answer me, Seimei. I want –"

"What you want is dangerous, and can bring you no pleasure."

Stunned, only half understanding his friend's words, Hiromasa tightened his grip. His voice a whisper, he asked, "How do you know?"

Seimei turned back, looking down. His face was in shadow. "Hiromasa…"

"It could be good."

With a swift gesture, Seimei pulled free. His breathing sounded uneven. "So this is what you came for."

"No. Yes." Hiromasa groped after him as Seimei withdrew. He reached out and caught the trailing hem of the hunting costume. "Seimei!"

Without thinking, he pulled hard and heard the cloth tear. The sound shocked him. Hiromasa almost let go. Instead, he grasped again, catching more silk. This time he yanked on it, bringing Seimei down in a tangle. An apology wavered on Hiromasa's lips. He dismissed it, angry that Seimei could reject him so easily.

Seimei moved, a blur of white in the shadows. Hiromasa crawled towards him, the torn scrap of silk still clasped in his hand. Inside the house, he dropped it. The enormity of what he was doing made him hesitate. Then he reasoned that if Seimei didn't want him here, he would have been cast out or turned to stone long ago.

His doubts faded as lust burned through him, sharp and insistent. Seimei's tacit surrender excited him more than did any of the coy fluttering of the court ladies. Hiromasa went forwards, blind again in the darkness.

He touched the edge of a sleeping mat. His belly heated with anticipation. When he reached out, his fingers brushed silk. They lifted, closing around warmth, shaping it, drawing it near.

"This is dangerous." Seimei trembled in his arms. "And I'm afraid."

"How can you be afraid?" Hiromasa meant that a yin yang master had no cause to fear anything. Astonished, he added, "You must have done this before. And besides, it's only me."

"Yes," said Seimei. "That's why I'm afraid."