Hiromasa shaded his eyes against the low-lying glare of the late winter sun and saw his future unroll for the next hundred miles. The Tokaido stretched into the distance, a meandering road of wheel-ruts and potholes interspersed with metalled sections. The Osaka Barrier lay many leagues behind them, and in truth Hiromasa had no clear idea of their exact location on the Tokaido. All he knew was that Heian-Kyo was somewhere back there, and Suruga province was somewhere ahead of them.
Glancing at Seimei, Hiromasa wondered for the thirty-second time since they'd set out on this harebrained scheme why he'd allowed himself to get involved in something that quite clearly was none of his business. Not that it was Seimei's business, either. No, it was the business of Hiromasa's cousin, Fujiwara no Kinto, the governor of Suruga—and even then, Hiromasa thought, it was debateable whether the business had anything to do with Kinto.
Though Kinto had another two years to serve in his governorship, he'd recently returned to the capital complaining of ill health. It appeared that the climate of Suruga didn't suit his delicate constitution. Hiromasa had expressed astonishment at this claim, for his cousin had always been very robust, but after more than ten days of being on the road—Hiromasa had lost track of which day it was—he could understand Kinto's complaints.
His post-horse snorted, its breath fogging in the chilly air. Hiromasa gingerly lifted himself in the saddle to ease the cramp and to unstick the hakama and layered robes from his thighs. He felt sweaty and sore, and even his teeth ached from so much unaccustomed exertion.
Seimei looked quite at home on horseback. His hunting costume was arranged just so, his hakama puffed out in a fetching manner, and his suede boots were clean and not covered in muck and dung. Hiromasa decided he hated him, and as he didn't like hating anyone, let alone his dearest friend, he directed his horse nearer to Seimei and tried to engage him in conversation as a distraction against the irritation bubbling inside him.
"The journey would have been much pleasanter by ox-cart," Hiromasa began.
"So you've said every day for the past eleven days," Seimei replied evenly. "I refer you to my previous replies, which have not changed in the interim: It would have been much slower."
"Yes, but..." Hiromasa swept his arm wide to encompass the landscape surrounding them, "if we travelled by ox-cart, we'd have had ample opportunity to enjoy this delightful scenery."
Seimei gave him one of those looks. "Really, Hiromasa."
Hiromasa fell silent. Perhaps he'd chosen to make his argument at the wrong time. He should have waited until they were travelling through country of unsurpassed beauty. The vista of a patchwork of barren rice fields and ugly clumps of weeds by the roadside did not help his case.
Failure was not a word Hiromasa recognised or understood. Urging his mount forward, he drew alongside Seimei and continued, "An ox-cart is more comfortable."
"Only if it is well-padded."
"My ox-cart is extremely well-padded, as you know."
"Too well-padded." Seimei's eyes flashed with wicked amusement. "We would have wasted the entire journey in sleep."
"Not the entire journey." Hiromasa felt a blush rise to his face at the thought and changed tack once more. "Seimei, you must admit that a cushioned ox-cart is more convenient for travel purposes."
"I admit nothing of the sort. It seems to me that a horse is more convenient, for it is much faster than a cart. It's less troublesome, is unlikely to get stuck in a ditch, and can offer better conversation than an ox."
"Better...?" Hiromasa stared at him.
Seimei stared back, lifted his eyebrows, and laughed.
"I don't want to know." Except he did, and so Hiromasa paused only for a moment before adding, "I'm sure my oxen are very good conversationalists."
"Oh, they are," Seimei assured him in an airy tone. "Much more entertaining than most of my colleagues, to tell the truth."
The idea of his two matched oxen wearing court caps and silk robes made Hiromasa chuckle. Another thought came to him, and he sat up straight, sliding in the saddle before he righted himself. "Ah! There is one aspect to travelling by ox-cart that you cannot argue against, Seimei—the weather. Surely it is better to be tucked snug and warm inside a well-padded ox-cart during a rainstorm than riding on the back of a horse."
Silence, then: "If the horse is swift enough, it may outrun the rain."
"You are right, Hiromasa. If the weather is bad, it is no doubt better to ride in an ox-cart." Seimei patted his mount's neck as if by way of apology, then lifted a hand to the sky. "However, the weather is quite clement. Perhaps you should simply admit to your bias against horses."
"I don't have a bias. I'm just a little saddle-sore, that's all."
"Ah, but Hiromasa, may I remind you who it was that suggested we travel on horseback to investigate this incident?"
Hiromasa slouched in his saddle. "It was my idea."
"And what did you tell me before we left the city?"
Gloom descended on him as he mumbled, "That it was going to be a great adventure."
"Indeed." Seimei gave him a dazzling smile. "Have you changed your mind?"
"You are cruel, Seimei. And no, I have not changed my mind—but I think I would enjoy our adventure better if I felt more comfortable!"
Seimei chuckled and said with a mischievous smile, "Then I promise when we reach the next inn, I will attend to your saddle-sores with all due care and attention."
Hiromasa grinned. "I'll race you there."
Their race lasted for less than a mile, at which point Hiromasa's horse slowed and refused to go at any pace faster than a walk. By the time he caught up with Seimei, his friend's gaze was fixed on a distant scatter of buildings and a collection of bridges spanning glimmering blue water. Hiromasa estimated the town was maybe an hour's ride away, which meant the next inn would be a little nearer than that.
"We can resume our race when we're closer," he suggested.
Seimei wrapped the reins around his hands, making his horse lift its head from where it cropped at the roadside grass. "That's Yatsuhashi."
"It is?" Hiromasa looked at the town with fresh interest. "So that's where it happened. It looks so peaceful and, well, boring from here."
"You should never judge anything from outward appearance." Seimei clicked his tongue at his horse and moved on. "Your cousin, for example. When you introduced us, I felt certain Lord Kinto was yet another arrogant, empty-headed Fuijiwara whose concerns were centred wholly on his own well-being."
Hiromasa frowned at this harsh judgement. "True, Kinto can be self-absorbed, but..."
"But I was wrong," Seimei continued. "Only somewhat wrong, for any man born into any branch of the Fujiwara family is destined to be arrogant and empty-headed, but your cousin showed an admirable concern for other people... or at least people less fortunate than himself who managed to die in intriguing and no doubt entertaining ways on the journey from Suruga back to the capital."
"Intriguing! Entertaining!" Hiromasa spluttered. "Seimei, how can you say that? Kinto was very upset at the death of his wife's gentlewoman companion. To be drained by a dream demon..." He shuddered, remembering all too well his own recent escape from a similar demon.
Seimei pursed his lips. "Yet this was not the case that caught Lord Kinto's interest the most. The mysterious demise of the young nobleman at the inn west of Yatsuhashi was what he entreated us to investigate."
"He entreated you." Hiromasa decided it would be wise to point this fact out. "Not us. You."
"And yet here you are." Seimei flashed him a brilliant smile. "Ready for your adventure, Hiromasa?"
"Perhaps I was over-hasty in describing the situation using that term." Hiromasa tugged at the reins to control his horse's apparent desire to wander randomly across the road. "What happened to the young man was extraordinarily strange. One should not go looking for an adventure where a man has died in unusual circumstances without being fully aware of the facts regarding the case."
"Indeed." Seimei's lips twitched and he lowered his head too late to conceal his smile. "Well then, shall we review the facts we have at our disposal?"
Suspecting mockery, Hiromasa shot his friend a pointed look, but Seimei returned his gaze with an innocent expression. Unconvinced, Hiromasa huffed before he began. "Kinto said he'd met the nobleman and his retinue at Hamana, and since they were both bound for the capital, they decided to travel together. There is nothing odd about that."
"Not if the nobleman really was a nobleman," said Seimei. "However, from your cousin's tale, it seems the nobleman brought someone—or something—else along with him on the journey."
"Yes." Hiromasa frowned at his mount's ears, which flicked back and forth incessantly as if the horse was listening to their conversation. "Kinto noticed that the nobleman seemed to bend forward as if carrying a heavy load upon his back. No one amongst the nobleman's companions and servants mentioned it, so Kinto didn't want to draw attention to what he assumed to be a deformity of the spine. He thought nothing more of it until he heard muffled noises from the nobleman's rooms one night at an inn."
Seimei nodded. "This is the part where your cousin displayed a most salacious interest in proceedings."
Hiromasa ignored him. "Kinto was concerned, for the noises sounded unnatural. A servant outside the door seemed terrified and begged Kinto for his assistance..." Remembering what came next, Hiromasa felt a blush warm his face. He cleared his throat. "Kinto hurried into the room and saw the nobleman naked and... er, engaged in matters of the rain and clouds—except he was alone and seemed to gain no pleasure from the act."
"How elegantly you put it!" Seimei gave him a teasing look. "The mystery deepens here, does it not? Allow me to summarise: The noble told your cousin that he carried something invisible on his back, something he could feel but not see, something that had weight but no substance, something that sometimes whispered to him but otherwise made no sound. Like a blanket it wrapped around him in a peculiar embrace, then it began to caress him, until finally, it molested him."
Hiromasa shivered. "'Like being smothered by a nightmare' was the description Kinto was given. It sounds horrible, Seimei."
Seimei kept his gaze on the road as they drew nearer to Yatsuhashi. "Your cousin saw the gifts this invisible creature left for the nobleman, didn't he?"
"Fruit, trinkets, a few coppers... nothing of any real value." Hiromasa wondered if any of the gifts were relevant to discovering the identity of the creature. "Kinto had no idea what to do to help the young man. By the time they reached Yatsuhashi, the noble was so weak he could barely stand. He took the third-best room in the inn rather than climb the stairs to better furnished accommodation because he felt so tired. Kinto says the nobleman died that night."
"Probably of fright and over-use," Seimei murmured.
Hiromasa glanced at him. "Kinto was just as terrified. That's why he asked you to investigate the matter, in case the creature has followed him to the capital. What do you think it could be, Seimei?"
"I have a good idea."
"Oh?" Hiromasa waited for an explanation, but Seimei would not be drawn. For the rest of their short journey into Yatsuhashi, Hiromasa pondered on the mysterious death of the nobleman and what manner of demon they would be dealing with—for demon it surely was, to attack a human so wantonly.
Seimei remained silent, apparently caught in his own thoughts. Hiromasa didn't like to disturb him, and decided not to mention their race to the inn. Besides, the detailed discussion of the case had made him uncomfortable, and he thought it would be bad form to suggest pleasurable activities when they were supposed to be investigating a murder.
The horses slowed as they approached a fine-looking two storey building. This must be the inn Kinto had mentioned. Hiromasa could see no other guests, no bustle of activity, no sign of life at all except for a twist of smoke rising from the kitchen at the back of the inn.
"It looks prosperous enough," he remarked.
"And yet no one is staying there." Seimei guided his mount towards the inn, and as they drew closer, the door opened and a youth of no more than fifteen tottered out to greet them.
"Noble lords, please allow me to see to your horses!"
Seimei narrowed his eyes at the youth before dismounting from his horse and handing over the animal's reins. Hiromasa also studied the lad, but apart from noticing a surly, pinched expression and a hunched deference for their rank, he saw nothing untoward. With a kindly smile for the youth, Hiromasa slid from the saddle and followed Seimei. Now they were finally at their destination, Hiromasa couldn't wait to get started on the investigation.
"I will question the inn-keeper's wife," he said, catching up with Seimei who stood looking at the building and the low sweep of its courtyard walls. "I'm good at speaking to women, you know that. You can talk to the landlord."
Seimei held up a hand for silence. "We must not rush into this, Hiromasa. The creature we're dealing with is cunning. We must outwit him."
Hiromasa frowned. "How do you propose to do that?"
Seimei smiled at him. "By using you as bait."
He strode up the steps into the inn, leaving Hiromasa gaping after him. When Hiromasa registered the comment, he hurried in pursuit. "Wait! Seimei—what do you mean, 'bait'? What..."
His words faltered as he entered the inn and saw the startled expression on a rotund, bearded man dressed in plain brown cloth of decent quality. Hiromasa supposed not many noblemen arrived at the inn bellowing like an ox, and so he fell silent and assumed a pleasant smile.
The bearded man's surprise lasted only a heartbeat, and then he ventured forward and bowed low. "Excellencies, welcome to my humble inn. This poor person is called Roka. Ask anything of me during your stay and it will be provided. The inn may not look like much, but I assure you it is warm and comfortable. My wife is an excellent cook, and we have a good stock of wine for your lordships' enjoyment."
Seimei had been glancing around during this speech. As soon as Roka finished, Seimei said, "Wine. Warm for Lord Minamoto, but I will take mine cold."
Roka responded to the authoritative tone and bowed even lower. "At once, Excellency. Do you require other refreshments? May we feed and stable your honourable horses? Will you grace this unworthy dwelling with your august presences for the night?"
"Your best rooms, if you please." Seimei swept past the almost prostrate landlord and ventured down the narrow corridor, the sleeves of his hunting costume brushing against the wall.
Roka gave an impassioned wail. "Noble lord! Not that way!"
Seimei paused then turned, his back held so straight that he seemed to ooze disdain. He looked down his nose at Roka and raised his eyebrows. "I see a room along the corridor that appears to be well-situated. A glance at the layout of this inn suggests this room is one of the warmest in the building."
Hiromasa hid his amusement in a cough. He rarely had the opportunity to witness Seimei at his most aristocratic, and even though he knew it was all an act, Hiromasa still had to admit it was a convincing one.
The unfortunate landlord wrung his hands and bowed again. "Your Excellency is correct. That room gathers a lot of warmth to it, but it is not the finest accommodation this humble inn can offer. Please allow me to show you two adjacent rooms upstairs, much larger and with better furnishings."
Seimei remained where he stood. "I wish to sleep in this room."
This provoked more protests from Roka, who dropped to his knees to beg Seimei to change his mind. When he encountered more refusals, Roka got to his feet, his shoulders slumped in defeat, and mumbled that the honoured guest could take the room.
Without a word of thanks, Seimei turned and stalked along the corridor, pushed open the door to the room, and went inside.
As soon as he'd gone, the landlord heaved a heavy sigh and shook his head. "Foolish," he said to himself, his voice doleful. "So foolish."
"Why is he foolish?" Hiromasa asked.
Roka jumped. He spun around, clutching at his heart, and stared at Hiromasa. "Oh, my lord! I—I didn't see you there—please forgive this ignorant person..." He started to bow again, but Hiromasa reached out a hand to stop him.
"It doesn't matter. I can take one of the other rooms you mentioned, if it's not too much trouble."
The landlord's eyes bulged. "No trouble at all, Excellency. And I hope you will forgive my speaking out of turn just now."
Hiromasa smiled in what he hoped was a placatory manner. He thought he knew what role Seimei needed him to play, and so he gestured for Roka to precede him. As the landlord scuttled past and led the way upstairs, Hiromasa asked, "Why did you call Lord Abe a fool?"
Roka whimpered and hunched down. "Ah, Excellency, you shouldn't remind me of my error. Please—"
"Nonsense," Hiromasa said, beginning to enjoy his part. "Between you and me, Lord Abe can be a little... difficult."
"The ways of noble lords is not for a poor man like me to judge!" Roka scrambled to the top of the stairs as if he couldn't wait to be rid of Hiromasa's company.
Reflecting that he'd probably spoken in an over-familiar way with someone who was his social inferior by at least a dozen ranks, Hiromasa tried to adjust his tone. He followed the bowing Roka to what he was assured was 'the best room in the inn', glanced around it with perfunctory interest, then barked, "Why did you call my honourable companion a fool?"
The poor landlord fell to his knees and pressed his nose to the floorboards, which appeared in need of a good sweep. Hiromasa wrinkled his own nose and waited, counting off the moments of wailing and apologies. Just as he was getting bored with all the noise and wondering if Seimei had been more fortunate in his investigation, Roka bobbed upright on his knees and stared at Hiromasa with a pale, imploring look on his wide face.
"Excellency, it is a fact widely known in these parts and for many miles up and down the Tokaido that there is... a demon who resides in that room."
A prick of interest stirred Hiromasa. "A demon, you say? What manner of demon?"
Roka grovelled on the floor. "I don't know, lord. It's never shown itself to me or my wife, but our son..." He broke off to wipe at the sweat beading his forehead. Crouching low again, he whispered, "It's not good to speak of such things."
Roka gave him an anguished look. "The demon forced itself on my son. It's killing him, and we can't stop it."
Hiromasa marched downstairs, ready to hammer on the door to the haunted room, but found Seimei waiting for him in the corridor. Too upset and confused to keep his voice down, Hiromasa burst out: "Seimei! Do you know what kind of monster inhabits this place?"
"Hush." Seimei made a silencing gesture and drew him towards the door. "Let us go outside to talk."
With a glance over his shoulder at Roka standing on the stairs, Hiromasa followed Seimei out into the inn's courtyard. As soon as they were away from the main building, Hiromasa folded his arms. "Well, Seimei?"
"We are dealing with a most unpleasant creature."
Hiromasa already knew that. "A demon?"
"A fox." Seimei gave him a sharp look, as if forbidding him to make any further comment. "A shadow fox, to be precise."
"It molested the landlord's son!" Hiromasa cried, unable to contain his disgust a moment longer.
Seimei's expression remained neutral. "Yes. I noticed it when we arrived. The poor lad is bent almost double from carrying the fox's weight on his back."
The remark startled Hiromasa. He blinked, recalling the sight of the youth hunched over as he came out of the inn to take their horses. "I—I didn't realise..."
"No. People of your class rarely do."
"Seimei. That's rude." Flushing with embarrassment and anger, Hiromasa gathered his cloak tight around his body. "I try. I try very hard to notice those less fortunate than myself."
Now it was Seimei's turn to look slightly shamefaced. "I know you do. I'm sorry, Hiromasa." He touched Hiromasa's arm and gave him a tentative smile. "Forgive me for speaking out of turn—especially when I have been attempting to make myself as unpleasant as possible to the landlord."
"Hmph." Hiromasa tilted his head and smiled in response, unable to stay angry with Seimei for long. "Your little charade was very convincing. Roka may dislike your noble arrogance, but he's genuinely concerned for the safety of any guest residing in that room."
"With good reason. His unwanted visitor is dangerous." Seimei turned and looked at the inn's main building, his gaze narrowing in one particular direction. "The window in the south-east corner is the only one in the room. Those shutters are in poor condition. It should be simple enough to pull them down and board up the window."
Hiromasa stared at him. "Why would we want to do that?"
"So the shadow fox has no means of escape." Seimei crossed the courtyard towards the stables and outbuildings. "We should be able to find what we need over here. I want that room sealed to the best of our ability. A physical barrier won't be enough, so I'll place a magical barrier on top of it and set a seal over the door, too..."
Hiromasa trailed after him, not relishing the thought of hard work. He'd never hammered a nail in his life, but then there were many things he'd never done before and somehow Seimei always managed to find a way to make him do them. "You want to trap it rather than drive it away?" he asked as Seimei went into the outbuilding and started picking through a pile of discarded implements. "Surely it would be easier to exorcise the creature."
Seimei retrieved a hammer from the pile. "I could exorcise the landlord's son, but the shadow fox would simply melt into the walls of the room and await a new victim. I imagine that's what it did once it finished with your cousin's travelling companion. Without a host, shadow foxes prefer to remain inside a building or a cave, anywhere out of direct sunlight. A room at an inn is the ideal place for a shadow fox to live—fresh meat almost every day, and if it likes the taste of a guest, it can go with its new host to the next inn... if its host survives that long."
Taking the hammer, Hiromasa watched as Seimei collected a box of nails and several planks of wood. "Is the shadow fox very strong?"
"As a breed, they're weak in comparison to foxes that can take human form." Glancing around the outbuilding a final time, Seimei went back into the courtyard, still talking. "What they lack in strength they make up for in cunning. They have no tangible body, so it's difficult to fight against them. They are as fluid as water and erode their human hosts gradually, feeding off their life-force. If they steal enough energy, shadow foxes can progress to taking human likeness. This one, I believe, is close to attaining its goal. One more victim and it will be ready to change shape."
Hiromasa nodded as he considered this. "The landlord's son is already very feeble. But where will you find a new victim? Surely you're not going to offer yourself to the monster?"
"Of course not," Seimei said, looking affronted. "I'm going to offer him you."
"Me?" Hiromasa squeaked and almost dropped the hammer on his foot.
Seimei sighed. "I did tell you. You're going to be the bait, Hiromasa—just as soon as you've finished boarding up that window."
Hiromasa grumbled to himself as he prepared for bed. He shook out his brocade cloak and hung it over the clothes stand, set his cap on the floor, then fumbled with the ties of his robes, wishing that Seimei had thought to help him with such things earlier. It was bad enough that they'd swapped rooms and Hiromasa had to face the ravening shadow fox alone, but to leave him to get undressed without help was terribly uncivilised.
"Really," Hiromasa muttered as his struggles tore a seam in one of his sleeves, "this is the absolute limit, Seimei! I don't know why I let you talk me into this. I know you'd tell me not to be so susceptible, but it's you. How am I supposed to resist you? Obnoxious man! I don't know what I see in you..."
Finally he managed to wriggle out of his top robe and hakama, and placed both garments on the clothes stand. Hiromasa hesitated over untying his hair from its topknot, then unfastened the twist of paper and let his hair tumble black and gleaming around his shoulders.
He thought he heard a sigh. His pulse thumping, Hiromasa spun around and stared into the corners of the room. He edged towards where his sword lay beside the sleeping mat, his gaze still darting. The urge to unsheathe the blade and poke it into every shadow overwhelmed him, but he resisted it, knowing that to do so might alert the shadow fox.
He forced himself to sit down. The quilts had been arranged neatly folded back, and he pulled them over his feet. His heartbeat skittered at every creak and groan made by the wooden boards around him. Next door he heard the low buzz of conversation as Roka and his wife got ready for bed. Hiromasa looked up at the ceiling to the room he should have occupied this night. He wondered if Seimei was already asleep.
Annoyance clouded Hiromasa's mind again. They'd dined in the upstairs room earlier. Seimei had ordered an extravagant meal and the best wine the inn had to offer, and ate and drink with pleasure while Hiromasa merely picked at the dishes. Roka's claim that his wife was an excellent cook was borne out, and Hiromasa regretted now that he hadn't done justice to the food. It might have been his last meal in this lifetime, and he hadn't had the appetite for it.
Just before the hour of the Pig, Seimei had yawned artlessly and announced he was ready to retire for the night. He lounged on Hiromasa's bedding and made a shooing gesture. "Everything is ready. All you need to do is go downstairs and sleep. Roka's son will bring you a drink shortly, which should give the shadow fox ample opportunity to seize the chance to abandon the boy and lurk in the room waiting for its chance with you."
Reluctant, Hiromasa had got to his feet. "Why do I have to do this?"
"Because you're human," Seimei said with infinite patience. "And because you wanted an adventure."
Hiromasa bared his teeth. "I'll give you an adventure, Abe no Seimei."
Seimei laughed. "Later, my lord Minamoto."
Now Hiromasa huddled beneath the inn's thin quilts and waited for Roka's son. He drew the quilts higher over his knees, then jumped when a knock came at the door. "You may enter!" he called, hoping he sounded authoritative rather than terrified.
The door slid open and the youth shuffled in, carrying a tray with a wine-cup. The lad could scarcely hold his head up, his knees bent as he braced against the invisible weight of the shadow fox. "Your wine, Excellency."
Feeling sorry for him, Hiromasa reached and took the cup from the tray to save the lad the effort of setting it on the floor. "Thank you."
For a moment, the youth raised his gaze to Hiromasa, and then he ducked his head again. "Goodnight, noble lord." He bowed slightly and shuffled backwards to the door. With each step, it seemed he stood straighter, taller. Hiromasa clutched the wine-cup and held his breath, watching to see if the shadow fox had taken the bait. By the time Roka's son crossed the threshold and slid shut the door, the boy seemed unencumbered, and his expression was one of shock and joy.
Hiromasa gulped down the wine. The trap was laid, but now it had to spring. This would be the hardest part—waiting for something to happen, waiting for the shadow fox to make its move.
Placing the empty wine-cup nearby, Hiromasa adjusted the quilts a final time and extinguished all but one of the candles lighting the room. He lay down and turned onto his side, a knot of anxiety tightening in his stomach. His limbs were tense, and he forced himself to relax. The darkness seemed to creep. He strained to hear the slightest whisper of sound, but heard nothing.
He started to worry. What if the shadow fox hadn't climbed off Roka's son after all? What if it had decided it didn't like the look of him? What if it had wriggled through the floorboards and was even now molesting Seimei? The thoughts multiplied, each more worrisome than the last. Restless, Hiromasa rolled over and faced the candle. He watched its flame standing tall, without even a flicker to betray a draught anywhere in the room. This evidence of his hard work on boarding up the window brought him some small measure of comfort. Pleased with himself, Hiromasa began to drift off to sleep.
A short time later, he felt a weight crawl across the quilts and press against him. Caught in a doze, Hiromasa catapulted into full wakefulness when something nuzzled at the nape of his neck and licked his ear.
Hiromasa sat up with a shriek. He lashed out, trying to grab at the thing that clung to his back with such tenacity, but he couldn't touch it. His hands made no contact, even though he could feel the full length of the shadow fox against his body. He turned his head, trying to bite it, but his unbound hair whipped in his face and stung his eyes. His skin crawled as it licked him again, its invisible tongue curling suggestively into the shell of his ear.
Nausea overtook him and Hiromasa felt bile rise in his throat. With a cry of disgust, he jumped to his feet then hurled himself onto the sleeping mat, rolling onto his back in an attempt to dislodge the shadow fox. When that didn't work, he clambered up once more and threw himself against the walls of the room, crashing his back as hard as he could into the wooden panels.
The shadow fox chuckled in his ear.
Hiromasa yelled and smashed himself against the clothes stand, which went tumbling to the floor, then he tried the same manoeuvre with a chest and a couple of shelves. The chest overturned with a huge crash. The shelves dropped to the floor. Hiromasa continued yelling.
A low chant seemed to wrap around the room. Hiromasa stopped squalling long enough to recognise the voice, if not the words of the chant. "Seimei! Seimei?"
A shimmer emerged from the darkness in one corner of the room, and Seimei stepped out of the shadows, fully dressed and holding a slip of paper with a spell written upon it.
Hiromasa flailed against the shifting weight of the shadow fox. "Get this thing off me!" he shouted, then remembered the sigh when he'd taken down his hair. "How long have you been there? Seimei, were you watching me?"
"I always watch over you." Seimei clasped both hands around the spell then flung it at Hiromasa. He yelped and ducked, then felt the spell strike the shadow fox still clinging to his back. The shadow fox rippled, and Hiromasa imagined it must be like seeing an angry cat with ruffled fur. It felt like wading free of the sucking mud on a river bank, and he shook himself. The shadow fox dug its claws into him, then leapt. The action caused Hiromasa to stagger and fall.
He righted himself in time to see Seimei grappling with the shadow fox. Hiromasa stared, his mouth dropping open. Now he could see the shadow fox, its form outlined against the brilliant white of Seimei's hunting costume. The shadow fox snapped at Seimei's throat, driving him back against the wall. Seimei hissed incantations, but the shadow fox lashed its tail and flattened its ears and attacked again and again.
The next spell threw the shadow fox to one side. Hiromasa heard the thud as the creature hit the wall, but he couldn't see it any more. Seimei gathered himself, rolling back his sleeves and beginning another low, swift incantation, his hands moving through the air in a complex pattern of magic-weaving.
"Seimei!" Hiromasa trampled across the sleeping mat and grabbed his sword. He brandished the blade in a swooping arc. "Tell me where it is and I'll cut off its head!"
"You can't cut off the head of a shadow," Seimei said, his spell interrupted. A moment later, the shadow fox seized him and shook him, then hurled Seimei across the room. Hiromasa helped him up, fussing solicitously. Ignoring him, Seimei glanced at the gleam of candlelight on the sword. "You can't cut off its head, but you can create an absence of shadow. Close your eyes, Hiromasa!"
Before he could react, Seimei looped the trailing width of his sleeves across Hiromasa's eyes and snapped out a spell. A blinding flash of light exploded through the room, a wave of shocking brightness shooting from the tiny candle flame. Even through the shield of Seimei's sleeves, the power of the light stung Hiromasa's eyes. The intensity of it obliterated all darkness in the room, and just for an instant, Hiromasa saw the shadow fox again as it tried to flee. It fragmented, then exploded, the shadow scattered before the blast of pure white light.
An instant later, the light winked out and the room fell into darkness. Hiromasa lifted his hands to his face and pushed aside Seimei's sleeves. He blinked as he looked around, his gaze going to the candle with its solitary flame.
"The shadow fox," he said. "Is it..."
"Yes." Seimei slumped onto the floor, his left hand clamped over his right wrist. Blood blossomed on the white silk of his hunting costume.
Guilt and anxiety jostled Hiromasa, and he dropped to his knees beside his friend. "Seimei, you're hurt."
An irritated expression crossed Seimei's face, but his reply went unsaid when a tentative knock sounded at the door. "Come in," Seimei called, and Roka, his wife, and their son looked in, their eyes wide and their faces ashen.
"We heard... We thought... We didn't know what to do!" Roka bowed, knelt, and pressed his nose to the floor. A moment later, his wife and son imitated him.
"It's all right." Seimei shook off Hiromasa's restraining hand and stood, apparently heedless of the blood running down his arm and dripping onto the rumpled quilts. "The demon has gone. Your son will recover his strength."
Roka gazed up at him. "Truly? You banished the demon?"
Seimei smiled. "It will not harm your family—or anyone else—ever again."
"But Excellency, it has harmed you." Roka indicated the blood spreading across the white sleeve. His worried expression brightened and he started to get to his feet. "I will run for the doctor. He lives not far from here."
"Thank you for your concern, but I shall be fine." Seimei pressed his free hand over the injury, gathering the silk and crumpling it to staunch the blood flow. "Take your family and rest easy, Roka. There is nothing more to be done here."
Roka nodded, still looking uncertain. "My wife will prepare a most wonderful breakfast for you, noble lords. And there will be no charge for staying here, of course."
"Yes, yes, that's very good of you." Seimei waved the grateful landlord out of the room. As soon as Roka had slid the door shut, Seimei stumbled to the sleeping mat and sat down heavily, nursing his injured arm and hissing under his breath.
Hiromasa went to his side. "You're not well."
"Don't fuss, Hiromasa. I am merely tired. The fight with the shadow fox took all my energy."
"Lie down and rest for a while," Hiromasa said, pressing Seimei back onto the sleeping mat and drawing the quilts around him. "I'll ask the landlord's wife to make a restorative draught."
Seimei smiled. "I think you like fussing."
"Over you? Of course I do." Offering a smile in return, Hiromasa clasped Seimei's good hand. "Well, Seimei. This has been an adventure, hasn't it?"
"It has indeed. Thank you." Seimei settled in bed, his eyelids heavy and his exhaustion obvious. He made no protest when Hiromasa rolled back his sleeve and examined the injury.
"The shadow fox scratched you." Holding his wrist gently, Hiromasa turned Seimei's arm one way and then the other, studying the scratches in the candlelight. The wounds were deep and tainted black, leaving faint shadows under the pale skin. "There's darkness in them. I fear the creature might have poisoned you."
"Hmm." Seimei yawned. "They will heal in time."
Hiromasa squeezed his hand. "If we'd brought the ox-cart, you could travel home in comfort and sleep the whole way."
Seimei gave a tired snort. "If we'd brought the ox-cart, we wouldn't even have reached Kamuzaki yet. Roka would have lost his son, and the shadow fox would have attached itself to another unwary traveller. We did the right thing, Hiromasa. Be content with that." He yawned again and settled deeper into the tangled nest of quilts.
"I am content," Hiromasa said softly. He took his cloak from where it lay on the floor and spread it over Seimei to keep him warm, then sat for a long time and watched his friend sleep.