The rain started slowly, fat droplets bursting upon the path, water stains darkening the pale stone and puffing up the autumn dust. Two drops struck Hiromasa's court cap with particular resonance, a plick-plock of such thumping ferocity that he lifted a hand to steady the hat upon his head. The next drop caught his sleeve, the water beading on top of the dark green brocade before it sank into the weave.
A breeze sprang up, bending the trees in the Divine Spring Garden. Hiromasa held onto his hat and turned, muttering at the vagaries of the weather. His eyes widened at the sight of a wall of black clouds tumbling towards him. The wind veered, and now the rain pelted down, a solid stream of cold. With a yelp, Hiromasa hurried for the shelter of the trees.
Acacia and maple shivered in the grip of the sudden storm. Leaves were torn from branches and flurried across the ground. Within a heartbeat, the paths ran with water. Hiromasa huddled beneath the swaying limbs of a pine tree, darting glances at the sky. The clouds thickened, forcing day into a dull twilight. The rain worsened, and Hiromasa moved back against the trunk of the pine.
Something flashed through the heavens. Hiromasa stared, trying to follow its trajectory. He didn't think it was lightning; or at least, it was unlike any lightning he'd seen before. He saw it again—a pale oval followed by a flickering black tail—and then something slammed into the tree above him. The branches cracked, and Hiromasa dashed out into the rain before the pine could collapse.
The wind grabbed at his wet robes and buffeted him along a wide path. Shuddering beneath the cold grip, he splashed through puddles. The tranquillity of the garden had turned to chaos; the falling darkness confused him, familiar ways now unrecognisable. Hiromasa twisted and turned, slapped by sharp branches, hindered by his soaking clothes, and eventually he stumbled upon a small pavilion set amidst a circle of willows.
He ran towards it, relieved when he reached the safety of the building. The rain hammered on the sedge roof and rolled in rivulets down the red lacquered columns, but inside the pavilion was dry.
It was also crowded. Hiromasa hadn't expected that, and he hesitated partway over the high threshold, blinking through the heavy half-light at the people staring back at him. A wet, motley group of men, women, and children watched his entrance with silent but passive curiosity.
At first glance, Hiromasa knew he outranked everyone in the pavilion. The thought made him blush. What did it matter when they were all stuck here in the storm? The rain fell equally on the rich and poor, and everyone had the right to seek shelter. Smiling around at the crowd, Hiromasa nodded in a friendly way and stepped inside. He moved out of the draught from the open doors and knocked into the person next to him.
"Watch it," snapped the richly-dressed but sour-faced man. He stared at Hiromasa, adjusted his attitude, and added, "My lord" in an ungracious mumble.
A ripple of interest went through the small crowd. "A lord?" The question came from an elderly woman swaddled in grey, her white hair lank with rain.
"Yes, Mother. He's dressed like a lord, anyway," said the thickset middle-aged man beside her.
Conscious of several pairs of eyes upon him, and already embarrassed at being the only nobleman in the pavilion, Hiromasa introduced himself. This prompted further comment, though the sour-faced man brightened and hurried to beg Hiromasa's pardon.
"Matters more important than the weather were occupying my mind," the sour-faced man said, bowing and smiling in an obsequious way. "I own a silk shop on Takatsuji Road, the largest in the city; perhaps you know of it?"
Hiromasa, who had never set foot in a silk shop in his life, murmured something noncommittal that only encouraged the merchant to begin listing the patterns on the latest Korean silks. At first Hiromasa listened politely, then he realised the merchant saw him as a potential customer. Offended and embarrassed anew, Hiromasa flapped his wet sleeves and stretched, using the movement to step away from the merchant. His gaze fell on a woman dressed in plain blue garments with a lute strapped to her back. A child, a pretty girl about three years old, clung to the woman's sash.
Nodding to the lute, Hiromasa said, "A fine instrument. Perhaps, if the rain continues to delay us, we might have some music later? Even the worse storm is rendered less frightening by the distraction of music."
The woman bowed and mumbled a response, then edged in the shadows, one arm around her daughter.
Disappointed but not entirely surprised by her reaction, Hiromasa looked around the pavilion. He didn't want to spend all his time here talking to the silk merchant. A young couple stood near the back of the room, the wife with her hands pressed to her pregnant belly and her expression anxious as she gazed out at the rain. Her husband darted suspicious looks at a peddler who lounged nearby, backpack at his feet. A man crouched on the floor, arms around two bickering children who seemed oblivious to the foul weather and their saturated clothes.
Standing motionless but for the click and roll of prayer-beads through his hands was a monk, raindrops still glittering from his rough brown robe. By the window, a pageboy in a bedraggled hunting costume fidgeted with his burden, a letter fastened with a plume of forget-me-nots.
"Is the message very urgent?" Hiromasa asked.
The pageboy clutched the letter. "Yes, my lord. That is to say, I was told it was urgent, but..." He cast a look outside and bit his lip.
"Bad weather defeats everything, even love," the silk merchant said with an over-hearty laugh. No one laughed with him, and he soon fell silent.
The rain increased. A curtain of silvery water poured down from the roof. Little could be seen of the garden beyond. Even the willows had been reduced to smudges of grey. It was as if a cloud had settled upon the pavilion, cutting it off from the rest of the world.
"This is ridiculous." The peddler lifted his pack and swung it onto his shoulders. "Why are we waiting here? It's only rain."
"I've never seen rain like this before," said the old woman.
The peddler shook his head. "It's rain. The worse that can happen is getting wet. What's wrong with that?"
"You might catch a cold," said the father crouched on the floor.
"I've been on the road for five weeks, walking through worse weather than this, and enjoy perfect health." The peddler adjusted the ropes on his backpack. "I have a charm from a wise-woman in Hida that protects me from evil on my journeys. I've had it for three years now, and no harm has befallen me."
"Truly?" The young wife looked at the peddler with wide eyes. "Do you—"
The silk merchant snorted, interrupting her. "No doubt you have charms a-plenty in your bag, ready to sell at exorbitant price to gullible fools."
The peddler ignored the comment and made his way to the door. He stepped over the threshold and put out a hand. Raindrops struck his palm and bounced off. "It's only rain," he said. "If you all fear water, I pity you."
Hiromasa watched him go. Perhaps the peddler was right. It was foolish for them to crowd into this small space, uncomfortable and embarrassed, just because of bad weather. If he hurried, he could be back in the palace before long, and he had spare clothes in his rooms and servants would bring a brazier to warm him and sake for him to drink, and he would have companions to talk to, and altogether he'd be much better off braving the rain than staying in the pavilion.
The pageboy seemed to have a similar thought. So did the father and his two children, and the elderly woman and her son. They all shifted, drawing closer to the door and peering out at the retreating shape of the peddler. He was soaked to the skin, that much was clear, but still—it was only rain. Rain didn't hurt anyone.
A flash split the darkness, white trailed by black. It arced through the fog like a fire-arrow and fell upon the peddler.
Hiromasa started forward, as did several other people. They stopped when the peddler screamed. Not a cry for help, but a sound of fear, a rising shriek containing no words, only terror. Mist rolled across the ground, obscuring the view. Hiromasa shoved the pageboy and children out of the way and went out onto the small veranda, fists clenched and his body tight with tension as he squinted through the darkness.
Another scream made him jerk back. Wet sounds carried above the beat of the rain; the sounds of a struggle. Without stopping to think, Hiromasa charged out of the pavilion. Cloud smothered him; the rain hammered at his exposed flesh. He staggered against the sudden flex of the wind, and then the mist blew back.
The peddler's body lay on the path in a contortion of agony. Blood thinned by the rain splashed around the corpse in violent patterns. The peddler's mouth seemed to have been dislocated in a final, silent scream; his eyes bulged wide in their sockets. His throat had been torn out and his chest cavity had been ripped open, as if some wild beast with unnatural strength had attacked him.
Hiromasa's breath stopped and his heart seized. He stared down at the ruin of the peddler, shock emptying his thoughts. Looking around, conscious of the water running over his face, into his eyes, his gaze fell on the peddler's backpack. The cloth had been shredded from the bamboo frame, and dozens of charms lay scattered. Hiromasa bent to retrieve one, then dropped it when he saw something roll towards him.
It was a head, a disembodied head, with long, trailing black hair. A woman, he thought, then he realised this couldn't be a woman, it was head, a head without a body, a head that had red eyes and a gaping mouth with sharp teeth, a head with its cheeks and chin smeared with gore.
Hiromasa stumbled backwards. He tripped over his clinging wet skirts and fell against the peddler's corpse. The female head rolled closer then bounced, launching itself from the wet path.
Hiromasa ran. It was only a short distance between the corpse and the pavilion, but time seemed to slow, the distance to yawn wide. He could see the crowd pressed into the doorway, their expressions horrified. The young wife screamed, her hand lifting, pointing into the air. Hiromasa ducked and felt something slap against the back of his head. The impact had no weight to it, and he realised it was the long, wet hair of the disembodied head that had struck him.
Disgust and fear urged him on, and Hiromasa hurled himself over the threshold into the pavilion. "Close the doors!" he yelled, and the men pulled at the folding doors, slamming them shut against the horror outside.
He lay where he'd dropped, eyes screwed tight to banish the memory of the peddler's corpse. Hiromasa felt the crowd gather, questions pressing at him: "What is it? What happened? What did you see?"
"I don't know." Hiromasa pushed himself to his feet. "He's dead. The peddler is dead. He's—" He stopped himself from revealing more, aware of the children staring at him. He glanced down and realised he had blood splashed up the hems of his light blue hakama. He tugged at his court robe, untucking its length from the back of his sash and letting it down to cover the worst of the bloodstains. The simple action brought him to a semblance of calm, and when he faced the frightened crowd again, he said, "There's something out there. Something... bad."
The young wife clutched at her husband. "You tried to help him. We all saw you. We saw—we saw... You were so brave!"
Hiromasa pressed a hand to his chest to quieten his racing heart. "Not brave." He'd never been brave. His position at court ensured that bravery was something he read about in tales. He'd faced demons before, but always in Seimei's company. Perhaps Seimei made him brave. Seimei was not here though, and Hiromasa felt like a fraud when the people in the pavilion looked at him with a mixture of admiration, hope, and despair.
The old woman spoke up, addressing Hiromasa. "What shall we do now?"
"We wait." Hiromasa straightened and leaned against the wall. "Keep the doors closed. That thing might come back."
Silence fell, a false quiet full of fear and nervous breathing. The group drew close, watching, listening. The rain continued to batter at the pavilion, but then came another sound—a skittering, a scratching. Something fell past the window, and a woman gave a muffled scream. The silk merchant, who stood closest to the window, said a piece of sedge had been dislodged from the roof; that was all. The news should have relaxed people, but instead the tension increased.
More scuffling above them. Hiromasa looked up at the shadowed beams. The pavilion was constructed entirely of wood, but the external slopes of the roof were protected from the elements by a thick mat of sedge. Was the disembodied head digging through the thatch? He shuddered at the thought, imagining the head dropping amongst them, red eyes flashing, mouth open and ready to bite.
Another clump of sedge fell. Now more people glanced up. A noise like the scrabbling of rats came from overhead, then there was a thump. A second thump; a third. It was as if the disembodied head was knocking on the roof. Then silence, stretching out thin and taut, and then the pageboy shriek-whispered, "There! At the window!"
Hiromasa turned in time to see the disembodied head smash against the carved screen set into the window. He glimpsed a white face, features obscured by wet, blood-matted hair. He saw its mouth, its teeth as white and sharp as snake fangs. The head battered at the screen but could not break through. It hissed and shrieked, an unintelligible babble of furious sound, and pounded at the window again and again.
Everyone crushed back against the opposite wall. Hiromasa stripped off his sodden black court cloak and draped it over the window. It hid the creature from view, but also cut off the wavering grey light from outside.
In the darkness, the children began to cry.
"What is it?" asked the old woman.
"A demon," murmured the monk, and lifted his voice in prayer.
Time passed, moments counted by the continuing beat of the rain. The monk had drifted into silence, although his lips still moved, giving shape to his prayers. There were no more strange noises on the roof or bangs at the window, and after a while Hiromasa tweaked the corner of his cloak aside, letting in the half-light.
A collective sigh came from the group, and faces lost their pinched looks. The daylight, though faint, seemed to restore people's spirits. Hiromasa worried what would happen if they had to spend the night in the pavilion. He tried to calculate the hour. It had been midway through the hour of the Horse when he'd left the palace; perhaps by now it was the hour of the Monkey.
His stomach growled, reminding him that he'd eaten only a couple of sweet rice cakes at daybreak. Trying to take his mind off food, Hiromasa stood and paced the small room. The others sat and watched him.
At length the woman with the lute said, "I hear something."
Hiromasa stopped his pacing and listened. At first he heard nothing, then he listened beyond the deadening pulse of the rain and heard the heavy tread of hooves and the squeak of wheels.
The young husband went to the window. "It's an ox-cart." Hope rang in his voice, and the rest of the group uncurled from their positions on the wooden floor and murmured to one another at the thought of rescue.
"Probably my servants came searching for me. I will reward them well," said the silk merchant. Pushing through the group, he pulled down Hiromasa's cloak from the window and peered through the screen. He stepped back, his nose wrinkled with disappointment. "Not one of my carriages. The sides are quite without decoration, and the canvas is thick and ragged. Also, there are no ox-handlers."
Hiromasa raised his eyebrows. "That's fortunate, for the monster would surely have attacked any servants attending the cart."
"Perhaps they've already been attacked and devoured," the pageboy suggested with a shiver. "See how the ox guides itself—such a thing is impossible!"
"It's not impossible." Hiromasa stared out at the ox-cart as it came to a gentle halt beside the pavilion. He recognised the shabby coverings on the carriage and had crossed the pavilion and cracked open the doors before anyone could protest.
"Good afternoon, Hiromasa." Seimei stood on the veranda, his white hunting costume seeming very bright in the twilight. Raindrops glistened on his lacquered hat and streaked his sleeves and hakama, but in an artistic rather than a natural manner.
Hiromasa gave him a pointed look and stifled a sigh. "Really, Seimei, you could at least pretend you got wet when you came out to rescue me."
"Have I come to rescue you?" Seimei stepped over the threshold and looked around the pavilion, his gaze sweeping over the assembled people.
"Of course you have. You never call on me unless you're coming to rescue me from something." Hiromasa pushed the doors closed. "Ordinary friends call on me to attend poetry recitals, or to go boating, or to play go—"
"Boring occupations," Seimei said lightly.
"Not my point." Hiromasa folded his arms and glared at Seimei. "You came here to rescue me. Just admit it. You couldn't resist the opportunity."
Seimei sniffed. "Perhaps I came here to rescue these other people."
"That's exactly what you should be doing," Hiromasa said. "After all, I don't need rescuing."
A smile curved Seimei's lips. "And why do they need rescuing from the rain?"
The silk merchant shoved forward. "Good heavens, is your friend a simpleton, Lord Hiromasa?" He jabbed a finger at Seimei. "The rain hides a demon—a monstrous fiend that's already killed one of our number! Lord Hiromasa saw it happen. A flying head that tears flesh from bones and drinks blood!"
Hiromasa summoned every ounce of offended hauteur. "Lord Seimei is not a simpleton. He is a yin yang master."
A blush crept over the silk merchant's face, but he stuck out his chin and continued blustering. "A yin yang master, eh? Then it's his job to get rid of demons. Let him get rid of this one, so we can all go about our business!"
"It's not a simple task to banish a demon." Seimei brushed aside the silk merchant and moved to the centre of the floor. He looked up at the beams, then glanced at the window. "Not simple at all."
Hiromasa nodded. "Successful demon elimination requires paper and ink and spells and sometimes a sword."
The silk merchant snorted and turned away. "Excuses."
Seimei ignored the remark, but his eyes gleamed with annoyance. Hiromasa saw the reaction and sought to divert his attention: "The demon ripped out the throat and chest of a peddler. I couldn't save him..."
"I didn't see the peddler's body out there."
Hiromasa swallowed. "The demon must have dragged it away." He shuddered. "Ah, Seimei! What kind of monster does such a horrible thing?"
Seimei scuffed at the floor. "I hesitate to identify it based on that gentleman's description."
Irritated by his friend's apparent lack of concern, Hiromasa caught at Seimei's sleeve. "It's dangerous. It's killed once already. It rooted amongst the sedge on the roof and banged on the window—it tried to get in here to attack us!"
"And now it's waiting." Seimei shifted his arm free of Hiromasa's grasp.
"Waiting for what?" asked the young husband.
Seimei didn't reply.
After an uncomfortable pause, Hiromasa began talking again. "You can take five people with you in the ox-cart."
"Six," Seimei said. "Six people if I stay here."
"Then who will drive the cart?" asked the elderly woman.
"The ox knows the way."
Another silence. Seimei smiled his most infuriating smile, shook out his sleeves, and settled himself on the floor.
"You will drive," Hiromasa continued, trying to control his exasperation, "because you can come back. So first, you will take the women and children."
"Three women, three children." Seimei waved a hand around the room. "Which of them shall I leave for the demon? No, Hiromasa: six people can go. The cart is protected by magical wards; there is really no need for me to go along, too. I will remain here with you."
The silk merchant shoved the little girl out of the way and crouched beside Seimei. "Listen, my lord—I know we weren't introduced in the proper manner but I hope you'll agree that sending the women and children out of here is a ridiculous idea. You should transport people according to their status."
Seimei looked at him. "Then I should take Lord Hiromasa alone, for he is worth a thousand of you. However, he has already stated that he is not in need of rescue. Personally I don't care who goes and who stays, but I would ask you all to decide amongst yourselves. And decide quickly. The wards on the carriage are time-limited and passengers will be left unprotected once the drums announce the hour of the Rooster."
The young husband frowned. "What time is it now?"
"Nearing the end of the hour of the Monkey." Seimei reached into his sleeve and withdrew his fan, camphorwood and dark blue paper spattered with gold and crimson. "You have less than half an hour."
Hiromasa found himself the centre of the ensuing rapid discussion. The silk merchant demanded access to the ox-cart. The young husband pleaded for his wife. The elderly woman declared she was too old to care what happened to her and asked that her son be taken to safety instead. The father begged for places for his two children—"Their mother died and I am all they have, but if I send them to my cousin-in-law outside the city, she might be able to look after them."
Hearing this, the woman with the lute offered to give up her place in the cart to the father, adding, "But take my daughter with you. She is an innocent, and I don't want her to face the harsh realities of this world too soon."
The monk said he would stay. The pageboy looked at his message and wavered between being brave and doing his job. The children wailed. The young wife clung to her husband and wept. The silk merchant tried to bribe Seimei with offers of the latest Chinese damask, obtained illegally and at great cost from Korean pirates.
Seimei sat examining the abstract design on his fan, unresponsive and uninterested in the hubbub surrounding him. At length he snapped the fan shut. "Decide."
Everyone looked at Hiromasa. Confused by the responsibility, trying to recall who had the best arguments for leaving, he chose six people: the man with his two children, the pageboy, the young wife, and the little girl.
Seimei got to his feet and opened the doors to summon the ox closer. Mist curled into the pavilion, wisping around feet and stroking at wet robes. The rain seemed less heavy, but when the cart drew level with the doors, Hiromasa saw that the canvas was saturated. It would be an uncomfortable ride to safety.
The silk merchant followed Seimei out onto the veranda, complaining the whole time. He complained as the passengers clambered aboard the cart. He went out into the rain and tried to halt the ox, but the animal lowed and continued on its slow, sodden way. Still complaining, the silk merchant shuffled alongside the cart.
Seimei watched him, gaze sharp and narrow. Hiromasa glanced at Seimei, then at the silk merchant. A flash of white, a flutter of black, and Hiromasa's eyes widened at the sight of the disembodied head breaking the cover of the cloud and hurtling towards the ox-cart.
"Watch out!" Hiromasa shouted.
The silk merchant stared into the air, his mouth dropping open. The head flew at him, long hair trailing. Before the demon could attack, the silk merchant dropped to the ground, yelling in fear. The head pulled up and battered at the ox-cart, shrieking as it flung itself at the wet canvas.
Realising he wasn't the object of the head's attacks, the silk merchant staggered to his feet and raced for the pavilion. Hiromasa called encouragement—the man was objectionable, but no one deserved to be bitten to death by a disembodied head—and watched with trepidation as the carriage rocked from side to side under the violent buffeting of the head's attacks.
The silk merchant reached the pavilion, tripped over the threshold, and sprawled full-length. Seimei made a soft, disparaging sound and stepped over him. Hiromasa came indoors at the repeated urgings of the young husband and the woman with the lute, but for a while they all stood in the doorway, watching the disembodied head strike at the cart.
The monk was praying, his words a stream of noise to rival the rain. Hiromasa caught his breath as a rip appeared in the body of the carriage. The head shrilled and tore a strip free, the plain cloth fluttering to the ground. Hiromasa glimpsed the three children and saw the young wife and pageboy scoop them into an embrace, holding tight as their father placed himself between the torn edges of the canvas.
With a blood-curdling shriek, the head rushed at the cart. The father raised one arm to fight off the demon, but the protective wards shone dimly and the head was flung away from the ox-cart. Shaking itself like a wet dog, the disembodied head rolled along the ground in pursuit and leapt up. Again the wards shone, a glimmering of distant magic, and the head was deflected. It bounced through the puddles then tried again, battering at the wards surrounding the ox-cart, its scream rising in pitch.
"The magic will hold," Seimei said. "Close the doors."
When the doors were safely shut once more, Hiromasa leaned against them and looked at his friend. "Well, Seimei, you've seen the demon for yourself now. What is it?"
Seimei resumed playing with his fan. "A nukekubi." He opened the fan then closed two folds with slow deliberation. "Nukekubi are demons that, by means of a spell written upon their necks, can detach the heads from their bodies so they may hunt down their victims more easily. They screech, drink blood, and devour flesh—the usual things one would expect from a demon."
"Why do they do it?" Hiromasa asked.
Seimei shrugged. "Frustration. Revenge. Their motivation varies. Like many demons in the capital, nukekubi are made, not born."
The group sat silent as they considered this. Then the woman with the lute leaned forward. "What happens to the bodies of the nukekubi when their heads go flying off?"
"A good question." Seimei half-closed his fan, looking pleased. "The nukekubi leave their bodies in a safe place, somewhere they're unlikely to be disturbed. In sleeping quarters, perhaps, or in a garden shed on an estate, or beneath a shelter in the woodland, or... anywhere, really. When the head is away from the body, the nukekubi is at its strongest and most vulnerable. To defeat the head, one needs to find the body and destroy it."
Hiromasa rubbed a hand over his chin. "Then we should start a search."
"The body could be anywhere in the city."
"Yes, but you could find it." Hiromasa met Seimei's gaze. "Couldn't you?"
Seimei remained expressionless. "Perhaps."
"Perhaps?" Hiromasa couldn't understand Seimei's reluctance. A demon was a demon, surely, and the world was a better place without demons. He went across the room and caught the end of Seimei's fan, bending close to whisper, "I know you can find the demon's body. You're the only one who could walk out of here and be safe from her attack. You could find where the nukekubi's body lay and—and... Not destroy it, but hide it, maybe, to force her to stop this!"
With a twist of his wrist, Seimei freed the fan; with a flick, he spread it wide, looking at Hiromasa over the top. "Why should I wish to do that?"
Hiromasa blinked. His mouth opened to form a protest, but before he could speak, Seimei angled the fan and murmured around it, "She has grievances. She can no longer hope for earthly justice, so she seeks to find redress this way, as a demon."
"She means to harm innocent people!"
"Does she?" Seimei closed the fan and looked around the cramped pavilion. "I rather doubt anyone here is innocent."
Hiromasa stared. "What?"
"It wasn't chance that brought you all here. The nukekubi arranged it. The cloud, the rain—it's only over this part of the garden. The rest of the city is in sunlight."
The monk shifted from one foot to the other, an uneasy expression on his face. "This wasn't a coincidence?"
Seimei arched his eyebrows. "I thought religious men didn't believe in coincidence."
"Don't make jokes." Fright and annoyance lent sharpness to Hiromasa's voice. "The nukekubi wants one of us, is that what you're saying?"
"Yes." Seimei stood perfectly still, his expression tranquil. "Someone here committed a sin against a woman, and she has become a nukekubi in her search for revenge."
The group muttered, edging away from one another, casting suspicious glances sidelong. The woman with the lute shrank back into the shadows, pressing a hand to her mouth, eyes glassy with unshed tears. The elderly woman clucked and shook her head, giving her son a hard stare. The monk went pale. The silk merchant drew in a shaking breath, and the young husband shuddered, his gaze fixed on the swirling mist beyond the carved screen in the window.
"Or perhaps it is not one of us, but all of us," Seimei continued.
Hiromasa shot him an angry look. "You're impossible, Seimei. You're too harsh on the rest of us."
Seimei dropped his gaze and smiled. "I am not the one judging you."
The rain continued and the sky grew darker. The group huddled on the floor of the pavilion in silence, and then Seimei sat up straight, head cocked as if listening to something beyond the storm. "The hour of the Rooster."
No one spoke. Hiromasa heard only the rain on the roof and shifted away from the cold, eddying air that slid beneath the doors. Since the departure of the ox-cart, the group had sunk into a resigned torpor. It felt as if whole days had passed, not a mere half-hour. For the sake of something to say, Hiromasa said, "I wonder if they made it to safety."
Seimei yawned delicately, like a cat. "Of course they did."
"You're so certain?" the woman with the lute asked.
"In matters of magic, I am rarely wrong," Seimei told her, but she didn't look convinced.
The silk merchant, who'd been lost in thought since his narrow escape from the nukekubi, suddenly raised his head. "The demon wasn't interested in me."
"Who would be," muttered the elderly woman.
Hiromasa coughed into his hand to hide his laughter.
"Listen to me!" The silk merchant pulled himself up from his slump, animation brightening his features. He addressed Seimei. "You said the monster wanted revenge on someone in this pavilion. But it didn't attack me. I was out there in the rain—I was vulnerable and alone—an easy target. And yet the demon didn't touch me. It attacked the cart. And since then, it hasn't tried to gnaw through the roof or break in at the window. There's been nothing out there but silence. Don't you see? Whoever the demon wants, it's none of us. The demon wanted someone on the cart!"
Rumblings of comment spread around the room. Hiromasa glanced at Seimei, who raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
"If that's the case," said the young husband, "there's no reason for us to stay here. Maybe the demon followed the ox-cart. Maybe we're safe."
"It's still raining," the monk said. "What if the demon is still out there, hoping that its intended victim on the cart will try to mount another rescue?"
The elderly woman cackled. "The demon would be stupid if it thought that! The people who left here have no ties to us. Unless," she pointed at the young husband, "you expect your wife to attempt a rescue, or you," to the woman with the lute, "expect your little girl to summon help. And what would a demon want with either of them?"
"I'm sure the father or the pageboy could arrange for a rescue," Hiromasa said. "We might all have been strangers when the storm brought us here, but dangerous situations have a way of forging bonds between even the most unlikely companions."
Seimei made a soft noise, and Hiromasa saw him smile before he dipped his head.
The elderly woman was less gracious. She snorted. "Come on, my lord, you can't really believe that! When you get out of here, you'll forget the likes of us. We're not part of your world, just as you aren't part of ours. Stupid to think we'd be friends just because we took shelter from a demon at the same time."
"But..." Hiromasa wanted to protest, but realised the old woman was right. The thought deflated him, and he sank down, staring at his hands in his lap.
The silk merchant jumped to his feet, suddenly restless. "So what if it's still raining? The demon hasn't attacked us again. That's the important thing. The demon doesn't want us. We can leave. We can get on with our lives."
"He's right." The young husband nodded and drew his cloak closer around his shoulders as he stood. "I'm willing to take the chance. My wife will be frantic with worry. I must get to her without any further delay."
"We'll go together." The silk merchant clasped the young husband's hand then looked around the pavilion. "Who else will come with us?"
No one moved. "I'll go when the yin yang master says it's safe to go," the elderly woman said, and the others murmured agreement.
"The yin yang master has done nothing useful since he came here," the silk merchant sneered.
"It's still raining," Seimei said peaceably. "I intend to wait until the storm stops before I go outside."
"Then may this storm last all night and all of tomorrow!" The silk merchant turned with a flourish of wet robes and gestured to the young husband to open one of the doors. "Let's go, my friend. You and your wife will be invited to a sumptuous banquet at my mansion tonight!"
The young husband looked embarrassed rather than eager. He turned away to unlatch the door, pausing to thank the monk who came to assist him. The door swung open and a gust of wind blasted into the pavilion. The monk struggled against the brunt of the wind but held the door firm. A moment later, the wind dropped, but before the silk merchant and the young husband could cross the threshold, something fell from the roof and hung in midair right in front of them.
Hiromasa started to his feet but couldn't see clearly past the three men. He glimpsed part of the disembodied head, but it was transformed: pale skin, a powdered mothwing brow, and long gleaming hair, the features of a woman rather than a demon. The nukekubi head swivelled as if looking at the men in the doorway, and then with a chilling laugh, the head whisked away into the clouds.
The three men cried out and stumbled backwards, fumbling with the door and finally slamming it shut. They leaned against it, pale and trembling. The young husband looked ill, sweat standing out on his forehead. His legs buckled and he slid down the door until he knelt on the floor, his shoulders shaking.
It was not the reaction of a man who'd just come face to face with a demon, Hiromasa realised. The young husband acted as if he'd recognised the nukekubi. Bewildered by this development, Hiromasa edged towards Seimei. "I think..."
"As do I." Seimei looked pleased. "At last, we may have the truth." He leaned forward and rapped the floor with his folded fan, his gaze shifting between the men. "You knew her."
The silk merchant blustered. "Who? That—that monster? Ridiculous! Who could recognise such a foul demon!"
"I knew her." The young husband put his hands to his cheeks as if to reassure himself that his head was still attached to his body, then closed his eyes, struggling to conceal his emotions. "Her name was Peony. She was a sing-song girl from the Golden Pavilion in the Willow Quarter."
The silk merchant rounded on him furiously. "Don't talk nonsense!"
"Peony, you said?" The elderly woman shared a troubled glance with her son. The monk looked confused, and the woman with the lute buried her face in her hands.
"It seems as if a number of you knew Peony," Hiromasa said.
"I didn't know her!" the silk merchant snapped, but a muscle in his jaw ticked and he looked away instead of meeting Hiromasa's gaze.
The young husband mastered his trembling and sat up. "If Peony became a demon because of me, I will gladly accept any punishment, even if I am torn limb from limb! I didn't know—you must believe me—I had no idea..." He broke down into helpless sobs.
Hiromasa wondered if he should comfort the young husband. He glanced at Seimei, who sat unmoved by the display of tears.
"How long did you know Peony?" Seimei asked, his voice soft and coaxing.
The young husband wiped his eyes on his damp sleeves. "Two years, maybe more. I used to visit the Golden Pavilion every month. Peony wasn't the most beautiful girl there, but I thought her the prettiest and liveliest, and she was my favourite." A wistful expression crossed his face. "She always knew the best way to cheer me up. At times I thought I detected a secret sadness about her, but she never confided in me. She was always smiling, always happy. Even when I told her I couldn't see her anymore because of my marriage, she understood."
The elderly woman snorted again. "You gave up chasing after whores when you got married? A likely story!"
The young husband blushed but held his chin high. "I did. I thought nothing would change, that I'd get married but continue to visit the Golden Pavilion, but I—I love my wife. I didn't expect that. I hadn't seen her until the day of the wedding—I thought she'd be a country girl, but instead..."
"Instead, you fell in love with your wife and gave up your courtesan," Seimei said. "Did you ever promise Peony anything or lead her to believe that your relationship was something more than a business transaction?"
"Never." The young husband frowned as he thought. "Peony knew I had a special affection for her. At first I believed myself to be in love with her, but she laughed and said a man like me shouldn't fall for a girl like her. The last time I saw her, I gave her six jars of wine and a silver hairpin as a farewell gift. She seemed pleased. If she felt any disappointment or anger, I wasn't aware of it."
"Hmm." Seimei tapped his fan. "When was your final meeting?"
"Last year. The end of the eleventh month."
Seimei nodded. He sat back, lifting the fan and unfolding it little by little.
The elderly woman and her son came forward to peer at the young husband. "I'm sure I'd remember a nice-looking lad like you," she said, "but I don't. You never visited Peony at my place."
The young husband seemed startled. "Your place? I'm sorry, but I always met Peony at the Golden Pavilion. We never went anywhere else. I assumed she lived there."
"You assumed wrong." The elderly woman tutted. "For the past few years, she rented a room from me. I have a block of houses in the sixth ward west. Used to be one big house, but it fell into disrepair and my husband didn't have the money to fix it up, so I said to him, let's divide it into rooms and rent them out. So we did, and since my old man died, my son's been helping with the business, collecting rents, making repairs..."
"Peony was your lodger?" Hiromasa asked, trying to steer the conversation back.
"She was. A quiet girl despite her profession, very pleasant, had a nice word for everyone. Almost always on time with the rent, too." The elderly woman sighed. "Knew we shouldn't have thrown her out."
Hiromasa gasped. "You threw her out?"
"It was a mistake. I feel bad about it now." The elderly woman waved her hands in annoyance. "A comb-maker new in town asked for a room. He paid upfront—paid enough for four months! What was I going to say? I couldn't refuse him; he'd only go elsewhere and someone else would profit from him. So me and my son had a think about it and we decided that since Peony had been late with the rent last month, we'd put her out. There were no hard feelings. She said she understood."
Seimei interrupted. "You threw Peony out last month—the eighth month?"
"That's right. Just after the Mid-Autumn Festival. But anyway, what I was trying to say was this—before she left us, Peony would sometimes come round in the mornings for a chat, and she told me that one of her wealthier clients had promised to buy her freedom and marry her."
The young husband looked mystified. "It wasn't me."
"No," said the elderly woman, "it wasn't." She turned her head and stared straight at the silk merchant.
"You're mad!" The silk merchant pushed away from the door, shaking his head. "You're not just mad, you're wrong. I never knew the girl. Never heard of her until today! Why would I go with a common sing-song girl? I have my pick of beautiful women!"
Hiromasa blew out a breath, unconvinced by the silk merchant's denials. No one else seemed to believe him, either. The rest of the group watched the silk merchant with cynical expressions.
"Hang on," said the old woman's son, going close to the silk merchant and looking him up and down, "I recognise you. Yes, I do! It's all coming back to me now—you escorted Peony home a couple of times."
The silk merchant drew himself up to his full height. "I have never visited the sixth ward west, I have never been to your squalid little hovel, I do not know you and I do not know Peony!"
"Lust turns men into witless fools," the woman with the lute said, and the elderly woman cackled in agreement.
"I've definitely seen you before," the son continued, poking a finger at the silk merchant. "You told me to get out of your way the last time you came calling. Told your manservant to scare me off, you did. Yes, I remember you. Hey, Ma—didn't Peony sometimes pay her rent with off-cuts of silk? Good stuff, it was. Not cheap. Expensive silk, maybe even Korean silk."
The silk merchant had gone red in the face. He made angry, incoherent sounds of denial, his fingers flexing, body tight with tension.
Her smile bright with malice, the elderly woman looked at the silk merchant. "Now I come to think of it, Peony told me not to feel bad for turning her out—she said her lover would take care of her. She packed up her few belongings and said she would hire a litter to take her to her man's house. She was sure of her welcome."
"That's enough!" The silk merchant made a furious gesture. "I'm not staying here a moment longer. I've done nothing wrong! So what if I had an affair with a sing-song girl? So what if I said I'd free her and marry her? They were just words spoken in the heat of the moment—they meant nothing!"
"Empty promises," Seimei mused aloud. "Oh dear."
The silk merchant glared around the room. "Don't tell me none of you have said things you didn't mean. I would be a laughing stock if I married her. I have three wives already, what would they think if I took home a sing-song girl? I did what any man would do in my position. I told Peony what she wanted to hear so she'd give me what I wanted."
Seimei lowered his brows. "You trifled with her heart."
"She was nothing! Just a common whore!"
The young husband strode across the floor and punched the silk merchant in the face. "Peony was special," he shouted, bending over the fallen silk merchant. "Yes, she was a sing-song girl, but she had class. She was sweet and lovely and deserved so much more than I could give her. You're the nothing. You're not even fit to brush the dust from her shoes."
The silk merchant staggered upright, clutching his jaw. A thin trickle of blood leaked from his mouth, and his eyes were glazed with a mixture of anger and shock. "You—you—"
Sensing that any more fighting would lead to chaos, Hiromasa moved to separate the two men. The silk merchant ran for the doors and wrenched them open. "I'm leaving! I've done nothing wrong—nothing, you hear me? The demon won't harm me!" He dashed out into the rain, still shouting his innocence.
The monk and the young husband stood on the threshold, indecision on their faces. The others clustered around the door. They looked back at Seimei, then at Hiromasa, as if awaiting instruction.
"Let him go," said Seimei, the faintest curl of a smile on his lips. "He has faith. Let him test it."
The nukekubi swooped out of the clouds, a terrifying head with red eyes and gleaming fangs and long, wet hair. The silk merchant screamed and fell to the ground as the head fastened onto him. Blood spurted, and the scream choked off into a gargling sound. The silk merchant's heels thudded against the path, his arms flailing, and then the nukekubi tore out his throat.
Hiromasa slammed the doors shut and rested his forehead against them, willing his nausea to subside. Two men dead, ripped apart by the demon. Hopelessness welled inside him. He turned a beseeching look on Seimei. "How many more?"
The elderly woman sniffed. "He deserved it. A man like that, puffed up with his own self-importance, bragging about his wealth and his wives, he wouldn't want a complication like a sing-song girl expecting freedom and marriage. He probably had her killed the moment she arrived at his gates."
"No," said Seimei, his voice deep and thoughtful. "If the silk merchant was the sole object of Peony's revenge, she would let us go now. We are still trapped and the storm still rages; therefore another amongst our number is guilty of sinning against her."
Needing distraction, Hiromasa paced around the pavilion, damp sleeves swinging, his thoughts tumbling. "If Peony is seeking revenge, the peddler—her first victim—must have hurt her in some way, too."
"It appears so." Seimei closed his fan and touched it to his lips. "We are establishing a chronology of sorts—the last year of Peony's life, from the end of an affair in the eleventh month to more recent events: the ejection from her rented room and her belief that the silk merchant would marry her. Where does the peddler fit in?"
Hiromasa interrupted. "He said he'd been on the road for the past five weeks."
"Newly-arrived in the capital, perhaps he encountered Peony on the street somewhere and took advantage of her unhappy situation." A flicker of distaste showed on Seimei's otherwise calm features.
"Wouldn't be the first time," the elderly woman said. "He looked a rough sort, too, that peddler. Strong and wiry. Man like that could easily overpower a young girl. Always dressed nice, did Peony. Maybe he didn't mean her no harm, maybe he just wanted her silver hairpin or the cloak from her back. Maybe he didn't know his own strength and she was dead before he realised. It happens, you know. Happens a lot."
The young husband made a distressed sound and slumped down, shaking his head. "Poor Peony. She deserved so much better than this sad end."
Hiromasa patted the young husband's shoulder in sympathy, his heart aching for the unfortunate sing-song girl who'd endured such a tragic fate only to become a hideous demon.
Seimei tucked away his fan. "We shall never know what happened. But whether the peddler or the silk merchant is to blame, it is not her death that drives her to seek vengeance."
Puzzled, Hiromasa glanced at him. "Why else would she seek revenge?"
Seimei sighed. "The human heart is easily damaged by even the smallest slight. What seems insignificant to you may be the source of unbearable pain for another. Whatever made Peony turn into a nukekubi, it is something she considers worse than the silk merchant's betrayal and her own possible murder."
Hiromasa considered. "What greater motivation for revenge can there be?"
Silence spun around the room. Seimei rearranged the sleeves of his hunting costume, his lips quirking. "I can feel the collective weight of your thoughts."
The young husband and the elderly woman and her son stared across the pavilion at the monk and the woman with the lute. "It's not one of us," said the elderly woman. "We knew Peony and we admitted our faults against her, such as they were. What about you two? You, monk—you stood at the door when the silk merchant and this young man saw Peony's face. Did you recognise her, too?"
A blush broke over the monk's face, and he drew his prayer-beads through his hands so quickly they rattled one against the other. He shifted, then twined the beads around his wrist until the skin went white. After this agony of indecision, he burst out: "Very well, I recognised her! But I didn't know her name or her occupation. In fact, I didn't really know her at all. I saw her on my way into the city, and that's the truth."
Seimei studied the monk. "Where did you see her?"
The monk's blush deepened and he lowered his gaze. "I—I saw her in the river. She was bathing."
The group took a breath and gave one another knowing looks. "Always knew monks were perverts," the elderly woman said to no one in particular. "Spying on women at the riverbank, I ask you, what's holy about that?"
"It wasn't intentional!" the monk cried, twisting his prayer-beads again. "I swear it! I was delivering a message to the temple in the third ward and thought I'd take a shortcut. I followed the canal path and there she was, standing in the water and washing her hair. I didn't mean to startle her, I didn't mean to look, I—"
Seimei interrupted. "When was this? When did you see her?"
The monk blinked. "Why, this morning. About the hour of the Dragon."
"Does that make a difference?" Hiromasa asked, puzzled.
Seimei ignored him and leaned forward, gaze fixed on the blushing monk. "What did you see, exactly?"
"Well... I saw a woman—Peony—dressed in her shift. Her gown lay on the bank. Her shift was wet—I saw the shape of her body and, um..." The monk swallowed his embarrassment and mopped at his shaven head with his sleeve. "She was washing her hair. It was gathered in her hands and twisted over one shoulder, and around her neck was—was..." He stopped, frowning, then continued in a slow, thoughtful tone, "I thought she wore a red necklace, but now I'm not certain."
"Ah." Seimei sat back, smiling slightly. "The necklace—can you describe it?"
The monk shook his head. "I don't think it was a necklace. Not a real one. I think it was made of symbols, written symbols. Yes. She had red symbols painted around her neck, but they didn't run or smear even when she splashed water over herself."
"And did Peony see you?"
"Yes." The monk sounded miserable. "She threw a clump of waterweed at me and shouted. I begged her pardon and hurried away."
Seimei chuckled. "She wasn't angry because you'd spied on her bathing. She was angry because you saw the spell around her neck. Nukekubi usually hide the spells beneath their clothing or hair or jewellery, but you saw her at a vulnerable moment. She feared you would recognise her as a demon."
The monk blushed again. "She didn't look like a demon. I thought she was beautiful. I didn't mean any harm, but perhaps she's keeping us trapped here because she bears a grudge against me and wishes me dead."
Hiromasa hastened to reassure him. "It's not you. It can't be you. Seimei, it's not him, is it?"
"No," said Seimei softly. "It's not him."
"It's none of you." The woman with the lute finally spoke. She rose to her feet and looked steadily at the rest of the group. "I'm the one she wants."
"What?" Hiromasa stared at her in disbelief and raised his voice over the excited reactions of the others. "You? But you're a woman! What harm can you possibly have done to Peony?"
The woman with the lute met his gaze, her eyes dry and without remorse. "Three years ago, I stole her baby."
"For shame!" cried the elderly woman. "Taking another woman's child—what cruelty!"
"What do you know of cruelty?" The woman with the lute stepped forward, gaze hot with anger. "I suffered more than Peony ever did! I was a maid at the Golden Pavilion, not pretty enough to dance attendance on the customers but quick enough with a tune that I could play the lute behind a screen, out of sight. No rich gifts for me, no pretty hairpins or bolts of silk or jars of wine. But I had a lover and I was content with my fate until I fell pregnant. The madam forced me to get rid of the babe, gave me bitter herbs to chew and scraped out my insides, and my child was no more, torn from my womb."
Seimei watched her with the intensity of a hawk watching a snake. "Robbed of your child, you resented other fertile women."
The woman with the lute tossed her head. "Peony got pregnant about the same time I did. The madam wanted her to get rid of it, too, but Peony begged to be allowed to keep her baby. She bribed the madam with costly spices and a sack of rice. I had to watch her stomach swell with the babe while mine was flat, drained of life. You will never know what it's like to lose something so precious, never understand the hatred that burns in the guts—and when Peony's baby was born, a beautiful little girl, she put her child to one side as if she were no more important than a doll!"
Hiromasa's mouth dropped open as understanding suddenly came to him. "Your daughter, the little girl with you earlier... she's Peony's daughter. The nukekubi attacked the ox-cart not because she wanted to kill someone on board, but because she wanted to see her child. The head ripped a hole in the canvas so she could see inside. Peony wouldn't have harmed anyone in the cart. She just wanted to see her daughter."
"She's my daughter now." The woman with the lute stood tall. "I took her from the cradle in the Golden Pavilion while Peony was entertaining a client. I took my lute, too, and ran away and hid in the far west of the city. It was a hard life but I had my baby—my baby, not hers! I played the lute in the West Market and earned enough to keep us fed and clothed. I gave my little girl as much as I could afford—everything she wanted or needed..."
"But you kept her from her mother." Seimei rose to his feet, his expression unreadable. "Your actions three years ago have spiralled beyond your control. Your decision has led to heartbreak and death and suffering."
The woman with the lute raised her chin in a defiant gesture. "You'll never understand."
Seimei's smile was tinged with bitterness. "Oh, I do."
They stared at one another, then the woman with the lute turned and opened the doors. The rain blew in, soaking her blue robe. She stood looking at the cloud for a long moment before she stepped over the threshold and walked out into the storm.
"Close the doors," Seimei said.
Hiromasa and the young husband hurried to obey, but before the doors shut, Hiromasa saw the woman with the lute standing on the path, her head tilted up at the sky as the nukekubi's disembodied head arced out of the clouds with a shrill scream of triumph.
Sickened and helpless, Hiromasa turned to Seimei. "You can't let this happen."
Seimei bowed his head. "A terrible crime deserves a terrible punishment."
The pavilion fell silent, everyone straining to hear beyond the noise of the rain. Angry at his feelings of impotence, Hiromasa opened the door again but saw nothing but mist. No blood, no mangled corpse, nothing—just the slow creep of grey cloud across the wet ground.
He left the door open. Slowly, the rain stopped. The mist began to retreat. Hiromasa unlatched the other door and pushed them both wide. The rest of the group crowded behind him, and they all looked out across the garden.
From the billowing clouds came a woman, young and pretty, her hair half loose over her shoulders and half caught up with a silver hairpin. Her robes were simple yet elegant, and while she walked with decorum, her smile hinted at good humour and her eyes held merriment.
"Peony!" The elderly woman's voice wobbled and she sniffed, wiping at her eyes. "Oh, Peony, you poor girl. I'm sorry for your troubles, so sorry..."
"I'm sorry, too," the young husband cried.
"She is no longer a nukekubi," Seimei said quietly. "Through her vengeance she has redeemed herself. Now her spirit will move on and trouble the world no more."
Peony drifted over the wet path, her robe turning to cloud, her form dissipating. She looked serene, her smile gentle, and she seemed to glance at Hiromasa before she vanished into the air.
Hiromasa swallowed, pricked by a sudden dart of guilt.
The last of the clouds blew away, revealing a blue sky fading into evening. "It's over," Seimei announced, stepping over the high threshold and onto the path. "Time to go home."
One by one the group ventured out of the pavilion. They stood and gazed around at the garden in bewilderment, then edged away through the willows, calling out farewells in small, embarrassed voices.
Hiromasa lingered by the pavilion, studying the sedge that the nukekubi had dislodged from the roof. He picked up a piece of the thatch and crumbled it between his fingers, letting it drop to the ground.
"Hiromasa." Seimei stood beside him, reached out a hand to him. "Come home."
They walked through the garden in silence. Hiromasa struggled with the knowledge inside him, feeling it squirm hot and uneasy. It was no good. He had to confess. "Seimei," he blurted out, guilt thickening his throat, "I knew her."
Seimei looked mildly surprised. "Indeed?"
Hiromasa let out a breath. "I didn't know her name or her situation, but just now, when the rain stopped and she appeared, I recognised her. How strange that our paths should cross again like this!" He shook his head, wondering, then continued, "It was at the Kamo Festival this year—I saw her in the crowd, a beautiful woman unaccompanied... I asked if she wanted to travel with me to the shrine. She laughed and agreed. I knew she was a commoner, but she was so pretty, and for a moment in the crowd, she looked lonely, and I wanted to make her smile again. We went to the shrine together, and there she left me. She wouldn't give me her name, and I never saw her again. Not until today."
Seimei's expression softened. "You did her no harm."
"Then why was I trapped in the pavilion? You said we were all sinners. I admit my motive in approaching her at the festival was not pure—she was so beautiful, and of course I hoped for a—a brief acquaintance with her, but..."
"Hiromasa." Seimei held up his hand. "Don't ascribe guilt to yourself."
"Then why was I part of this?"
Seimei turned to him. "You were the lure for me."
Startled, Hiromasa stopped in his tracks, heedless of the puddle in which he stood. "You mean... Seimei? Seimei!" When Seimei didn't stop, Hiromasa hurried after him, shock spinning in his head. "You knew Peony? You sinned against her?"
Seimei looked at him. "I gave her the spell that would make her into a nukekubi." An unreadable emotion flickered in his eyes before he dropped his gaze. "If that is not a sin, what is?"