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The Emissary

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The foundation of the transmission tower was torn, the concrete cracked into three pieces around the base of the pylons. The tear lines continued through the rocky ground, to the edge of the forest. Mist was gathering at the bottom of the furrows.

"We were all here when the foundations were poured," the foreman said. "They set well."

"We tested the concrete twice." The engineer tugged at the edge of his suit jacket. "Ah, Inspector, we wouldn't bother headquarters with this matter..."

The inspector smiled, her angular face losing its sternness. The mountain breeze was making her pink scarf flutter along with the dark strands of her hair. "I'm sure you did everything as it should be done. Your decision to dismantle the tower assured the safety of the workers."

"Ah, yes." The engineer brightened. "And the steel is ready to be assembled again once we - but this is the third-"

"The seventh time this has happened on this mountain." The inspector held up a yellowed file. "The old power company started putting a power line across this mountain thirty years ago, during the boom. They wanted to supply power to the new resort from the eastern system, but after four towers fell to this kind of damage, they gave up. The resort was connected to the power network of West Japan instead."

The foreman shifted from foot to foot.

"The deaths at that time were unfortunate," the inspector said. "This time, it is my task to find out what happened and find a way for the mountain to accept this power line. Please inspect the parts of the tower before the rain falls, to make sure they are properly stored. I will inspect the rock structures on the affected sites. Gentlemen, thank you for your work."

The engineer and the foreman both bowed. "Thank you, Inspector Ogino."

The inspector tied her scarf more securely, then turned around with a frown. Hiromi ducked back into the canteen tent. Just because she was curious about the woman from Tokyo didn't mean she could stare.

The girl touched the amulet in her pocket, just to be sure. Her grandmother had insisted on it when the second tower fell. Normally Hiromi only got the usual talismans for good grades, but with all the accidents over the last two weeks, she stopped at the shrine every day on the way home. When her father had been her age, five workers died in the last accident, and she liked everyone in the construction crew, even the apprentices who teased her.

The curtain at the tent entrance twitched open. For a moment she thought it was one of the workers in their grey uniforms, but there was the pink scarf.

"Hello," the inspector said. "You're from this area, aren't you?"

Hiromi nodded. "My parents own the big restaurant in town, so the company asked them to run the canteen. I help on Saturdays..."

"But lunch is already over. What is your name?"

"Konoe Hiromi, but-"

"I need a guide." The inspector looked younger when she smiled, like a university student. "I live in Tokyo, but I grew up in a small town like this. You look like someone who knows every path on the mountain, Hiromi."

"Yes, Inspector Ogino."

"Chihiro."

"Huh?"

"My name is Chihiro."

 

*

It felt like they'd walked for hours, but the sun stayed in the same place, a lighter circle in the clouded sky. Chihiro led the way after all, over rocks and ancient roots. Hiromi stumbled after her, trying to keep her clothes away from scraggly branches.

"Is this why you dress like this, Inspector Ogino?"

"Chi-hi-ro," the woman corrected once more. "Yes, it's not practical to wear heels and suits in the mountains. Workers' clothes are better."

"You didn't look like Mr Yamada expected."

Chihiro rubbed the back of her head. "When I inspect construction sites, I often surprise people. They don't think a geologist from the Tokyo office will get their hands dirty, especially a woman geologist."

"Is it hard?" Hiromi pulled herself up a grassy slope. "Geology?"

"It can be hard. But this is because I choose the hard way. I look for ways to make nature and human construction coexist."

"Like environment protection?"

"A little." Chihiro stopped and pushed her hair out of her eyes. "We've been building for a long time without any regard for nature. But if you make the effort, nature and humans can work together."

Around them, the trees shook. Then the ground trembled. Hiromi squeaked, but Chihiro caught her arm and put a finger to her lips.

"I think this is the only logical way. We can't force nature to obey, not in Japan. We were just reminded of this, and now this project must connect the eastern and western power networks before another large earthquake happens, or another power plant disaster."

"But the mountain..."

Chihiro squeezed Hiromi's arm. "The mountain has been here for thousands of years. But there have always been mountain paths. This is just another kind of path, a path for electricity."

A shadow moved behind Chihiro, like a part of the forest floor rising and looming. Hiromi shivered.

"There is no reason to treat it differently-" Chihiro took a soft breath "-is there, Master Raccoon?"

The growl shook the leaves and the ground again. Hiromi shied to Chihiro's side, the woman pulling her close as she turned around.

The racoon was of a height with them, dressed in a tattered happi coat with an arrowhead pattern in brown and green. He held a long staff, but his claws around it looked more dangerous, black and long and sharp.

Chihiro bowed, pulling Hiromi with her. "Master Raccoon, I apologise for the disturbance."

The raccoon snorted. "We take care of disturbances! We don't need words to twist!"

"But isn't it less work to talk than to move rock and steel?" Chihiro spoke as firmly and clearly as she had with the engineer and the foreman. "It would be an honour to discuss matters with the power of this mountain."

"Hah! Why should we, city woman? We don't know you! We don't owe you!"

"You owe Miss Konoe Hiromi," Chihiro said. "For the past ten years, she has taken part in the Earth Day festival to clean up this mountain and its streams. For the past three years, she has organised the festival in her school and broke participation records each year."

The raccoon snorted and turned on his heel. As they followed him deeper into the misty forest, Hiromi tugged on Chihiro's sleeve.

She got a wink in return. "Internet."

"Miss Chihiro..."


*

It felt like another hour, but the sun was still in the same place when they went over the crest of the mountain. Hiromi knew they should see the town, the river, the train line and the highway.

Instead, giant trees formed a cathedral ceiling over a clearing. They were each wider than a car, taller than the transmission towers, and a forest like this on the top of the mountain should have been visible for miles.

It wasn't. Hiromi shivered as she realised it really wasn't, and they were now in this place that didn't really exist. No real trees threw moving shadows, or hosted countless pairs of glowing eyes.

Two shadows moved closer. Once in the clearing, one of them was a red giant, horned and raggled. He dragged a club behind him, leaving a deep furrow in the ground.

The smaller one looked like a travelling priest from a century earlier, but the beak gave away the tengu's nature.

"You've come to talk about the end of human disturbances on our mountain." The tengu separated each syllable into a sharp caw. "Speak."

"I've come to talk to the one who has power over this mountain." Chihiro's bow was shallow, perfunctory. "Please take me to her."

"What, again?" the red demon muttered. "We just got back-"

The tengu's priest staff caught him on the shin. "Out of the question. Talk, or we'll throw you off the mountain. And you can't fly."

Hiromi squeaked. At their side, the raccoon grumbled about pushy birds.

"I can't fly," Chihiro said. "But your lady's other visitor can fly, and he will not be happy if he has to catch me falling."

The red demon frowned. "He can?"

The tengu walloped him again. "You idiot, he's a dragon! Of course he can fly!"

"Good," Chihiro whispered, squeezing Hiromi's arm. "I wasn't sure if he was here already."

"Who-"

"Shhh."

The tengu drew himself up again, puffing out his chest. "Then I will just curse you until you don't even remember your name. You won't ever find your way-"

Chihiro drew her hand up to retie her scarf. At her wrist, a scrap of glittering purple yarn caught the muted sunlight.

The tengu swallowed, a long black tongue flickering for a moment in the depths of his beak. "Where'd you get that?"

Chihiro slipped the band off her wrist and used it to tie her hair back. The shorter strands at the sides fell loose to frame her face, like a princess in a historical drama.

"It was spun and woven for me in the house of Zeniba, at the Swamp Bottom stop of the train line."

The tengu shuffled back. "You rode that train?"

"And I came back." Chihiro smiled, pushing Hiromi forward from her hiding place behind the raccoon. "So please take us to the lady of this mountain."

The tengu opened its beak, then closed it. The red demon dropped a heavy hand on his shoulder.

They both stood aside. Between them, the trees parted as well, revealing a rocky path heading upwards.

"But this is the top of the mountain..." Hiromi whispered.

The raccoon snorted. "Not yet."

 

*

The climb wasn't as long as before, and with each step the air felt crisper, more real. Hiromi ran forward when she saw the first rock she recognised. This was the road just below the real crest, above the old river bed. If she didn't look back, maybe it would be just Chihiro following her, and not the demon, the tengu or the raccoon.

She climbed the familiar path at speed. Here was the old pine, and the mushroom circle, and the observation point, the old construction site was just behind that bend.

She stopped mid-step as she rounded the bend.

The dragon was large and bright. His whiskers quested to the sides and forward, almost touching her face. White, and she got a glimpse of a crest the colour of seawater before he raised his head and opened his mouth.

His teeth were as long as her fingers, his breath smelled of fresh water and pine, and he could swallow her whole head in one bite.

"Running while climbing is dangerous," he said.

Hiromi squeaked.

The dragon reared up, gracefully rearranging his long body to leave a path to the edge of the cliff. There was someone else there, an old woman with loose white hair and dark skin, her eyes silver and sad, but Hiromi was kind of distracted by the dragon.

"Madam." Chihiro sounded calm behind her, as if a dragon was - normal? "It's my honour to meet you. I give myself to your care."

Hiromi felt Chihiro's hand on her arm again, motioning her to bow. Like in that clearing.

Your lady's other visitor - will not be happy if he has to catch me - I wasn't sure if he was here already-

As they passed by the dragon, Chihiro's hand brushed his feathered claw.
The crone straightened up. She was tall, almost as tall as the red demon, and thin as a reed. Next to her, Chihiro looked very small and plain and human. Between them a crumbling furrow divided the ground, running from the pile of rock at the end of the path to the cliff face.

"My name is Ogino Chihiro," Chihiro said. "I have come to discuss the disturbances."

The crone spat on the ground. "Disturbances! You humans want to take away my mountain. Well, I won't stand for that. Not like some people."

The dragon growled, the rumbling sound of rocks rolling in whitewater.

"I'm old enough to know," the crone said. "I know you, Nigihayami Kohakunushi, and you don't scare me." She jabbed her finger at Chihiro's chest, her arm too long and thin. "And you, Sen, go back to your masters and tell them that anyone who tries to build on my mountain will die."

"Why?" Only when three pairs of eyes pinned her did Hiromi realise she said it out loud. "I- I mean, why do you hate the construction crew so much? They're all people from the town, and we all love the mountain, and last Earth Day all the guys helped us clean up the forest..."

The crone's eyes burned white.

"Because of what happened the last time," Chihiro said.

The crone's hand shot out, but the dragon was faster. He coiled around Chihiro, mane and feathers bristling.

"This isn't a natural outcrop, or a natural cliff," Chihiro said. "Thirty years ago, the construction workers used explosives to level a site for the first transmission tower of the new power line."

Hiromi looked down. There were other furrows on the ground, and four deep hollows with moss lining them, the pattern of a tower's pylons.

"You ordered this tower destroyed," Chihiro said. "But you only killed at the site of the fifth tower, a month later."

The dragon dipped his head, chin brushing Chihiro's hair. "Because it took a month of attempts to restore the river before the river spirit gave up and passed on."

"He was killed!" the crone yelled. "He died and they paid for it! Now they're back and they'll destroy my mountain again, all that is left!"

"It's not like that," Hiromi protested. "There are plans now and regulations, and for every tree cut down, the workers plant another one."

"Lies!" The crone trembled, her hair streaming in the wind.

"Truth," Chihiro said. "This is my job, to make sure that nature and the work of humans is in harmony. With my plans I prevent damage or heal what has already been hurt."

The crone wrapped her long arms around her head, sleeves draping over her face.

Hiromi carefully reached between the coils of the dragon's body and tugged on Chihiro's sleeve. "Even after thirty years?" she asked quietly.

Chihiro tilted her head, then looked up at the dragon. Both of them moved at the same time, heading towards the pile of rocks.

The dragon smashed larger boulders out of their way with his tail. Chihiro dug in the rubble revealed under them, not searching as much as shaping.

Hiromi knelt next to her, helping her dig a hollow connected to the deepest furrow. The gravel at the bottom glistened with moisture.

Chihiro measured space with her hands before pointing at a patch of ground uphill. The dragon surged into the the sky.

The clouds parted, and his feathers shone white as he rose. Like sunlight on the sea, Hiromi thought.

Then he dove. She didn't see the impact, wrapped in Chihiro's protective hug, but they all felt the ground shake and shift and give.

By their knees, the hollow bubbled with water. It filled within the space of a prayer and overflowed into the furrow. At the edge of the cliff, the stream caught the sunlight as it fell.

Chihiro leaned against the dragon, still holding Hiromi close. His feathers were warm, ruffling with each slow breath.

The crone walked slowly towards them, along the edge of the stream. Her sleeves were damp at the edges, where they had rested over her eyes.

"It took months, maybe years, but water is resilient," Chihiro said. "The underground streams came back. They just needed an outlet."

The crone knelt by the new-old spring. Maybe it was the sunlight that was making sparks dance in the bubbling water.

She reached down with long, crooked fingers. The sparks wrapped around her hand.

Hiromi shook her head to clear it. She leaned against Chihiro and the dragon, and closed her eyes for a moment. She felt as if she'd walked all day and all night, as if that sunlight were the dawn.

 


*

Hiromi was still yawning, though it was very late on Sunday morning. The last day was blurry in her mind, but the marketplace and her shopping list were helping her concentrate.

She waved to two girls from her class, both perched on the railing of the footbridge. "Are you guys watching for cranes?"

"Not cranes," Mari and Rei chorused, then beckoned her over.

Mari leaned in. "You haven't seen him yet?"

"Seen who?"

"The new strange guy? So handsome!"
"And polite," Rei added. "He got gasoline from my parents' station this morning and he talks really politely. Nothing like most guys from Tokyo."

Hiromi rubbed her cheek. "Where is he staying?"

"At the ryokan?"

She grinned. "Then he's staying with someone, because they don't have one person rooms, and if he was here on business he wouldn't come on the weekend, so you guys are out of luck."

Rei groaned. "But he's the only new person in town today..."

"Maybe she's still asleep?" Mari asked. "If he tired her out..."

That set them all giggling, until Hiromi remembered the mushrooms she still had to buy for the restaurant. She set off at a run to the mushroom stands, since the foragers would be the first to pack up and leave.

That part of the market was a labyrinth of stalls, but mostly empty by noon, so she turned the corner at a run.

She collided with the guy's arm, but he turned around and caught her before she fell down. With her breath knocked out, she had time to stare. That had to be Mari and Rei's stranger, because he looked like an actor or a singer, hair down to his broad shoulders, sea green eyes, white shirt billowing in the breeze. She was close enough to smell his aftershave, something like fresh water and pine.

"Running while shopping is also dangerous," he said.

She squeaked. "Ni-Nigihayami-"

"And you're late." He set her back on her feet. "Let's go."

"B-but I have to buy-" She looked around frantically, just in time to catched the parcel that the old mushroom-picker tossed at her head.

"Free of charge," the old man said. "I don't even want to know why."

He snorted as he turned, and his shadow on the wall of the stall was different, ragged.

The strangeman - Hiromi tried hard to keep herself from thinking other words, though he hadn't been surprised when she called him Nigihayami - towed her by the arm through the late market crowd. They were moving faster than possible as he found gaps between streams of people, or maybe made them move out of his way. She caught sight of Rei and Mari for a moment, still on the bridge and staring after them in shock.

He slowed down before they reached the cafe on the main street, long enough that she wasn't panting when they arrived. "We have a reservation for three people for the special dessert menu," he told the waitress. "Ogino Kohaku."

Hiromi tried to form a question, but the sudden grip on her other arm was familiar.

Chihiro gave her a bright smile. "Here you are. I thought you might sleep in and miss the invitation we left."

Faced with an environmental inspector who bullied forest demons and a dragon in the shape of a man - and, it seemed, married to the inspector - Hiromi opted to focus on the special dessert menu.