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The Fox's Biwa

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“This place is a dump.”

“Hush! Don’t say things like that. Not here.” Yorimichi eyed his toad-familiar Muhaku with anxiety. “We’re guests. Just because some visitors seem to behave as they please, it doesn’t mean we can follow their example.”

“Huh.” Muhaku lidded his eyes and gave a disparaging croak. “You mean that smelly fox and the hot-tempered warrior. They know this place is a dump already.”

“Yes, but...” Yorimichi sighed. There seemed little point in trying to explain the finer points of etiquette to a toad. He gave up and tried to relax.

The afternoon sun warmed his face, and he kicked his legs back and forth over the edge of the veranda, feet scuffing at the overgrown wilderness of the garden. Each idle kick released a scent from the grasses and flowers that combined in a not unpleasant way with the smell of dried bark and rotten wood. The villa was in a terrible state of repair, no doubt about it, but Koretaka Shinnou had said he didn’t mind the privation. Perhaps, thought Yorimichi, the exiled prince saw the house as a symbol of his fall from grace. A genius prince would know how to make best use of symbols.

Yorimichi’s thoughts drifted to the dragon he’d seen when he first entered the estate. The memory of it sent a shiver down his spine.

Muhaku gave him a beady look. “Wondering about the return of your powers?”

“Yes.” Yorimichi leaned forward and picked a gillyflower from the garden. “I’ve been without them for so long, relied only on the most basic forms of divination, that to feel my power coming back... it’s strange. And the fact that it’s somehow linked to Koretaka Shinnou...”

“It’s very interesting.” Muhaku withdrew a short distance across the veranda to find some shade. “But you should be wary. Don’t let Miya-sama’s charisma dazzle you. Remember he was accused of murder. Look after yourself first.”

Yorimichi twirled the flower between his fingers. “But would a murderer really invite an onmyouji to comb his hair?”

“Only a supremely confident man would place himself in such a position of vulnerability,” Mukahu said. “Even though he knew you had no powers, you could still have threatened him or hurt him in other ways. But you didn’t, and he knew you wouldn’t.”

“You think he’s a good judge of character.”

Muhaku sniffed. “I wouldn’t say that. Look at that smelly fox he has as his advisor. Ah well, humans are easily impressed by foxes. I suppose they are more handsome than toads.”

Yorimichi chuckled. “I wouldn’t swap you even for a nine-tailed fox.”

Muhaku puffed out his chest. “This is why I like you, Yorimichi. You know just the right things to say.”

They sat in silence for a while longer, then Muhaku announced he was going for a swim in the garden pond—if he could find it beneath the tangled undergrowth. Yorimichi helped the toad off the veranda, then turned to go indoors. The eaves creaked above him, the sound breaking the stillness. He wandered through the main hall, stepping around torn standing curtains and mildewed screens, then paused when he saw Shinnou and Minamoto no Yukinori deep in conversation.

Yorimichi stood watching for a moment, wondering what they were discussing so intently. He blushed when Shinnou glanced over at him, and hurried away in case the hot-tempered Yukinori thought he was spying on them. Yorimichi had no desire to be on the receiving end of the captain’s sword yet again today. He retreated along a covered walkway around the edge of the garden and stopped when he saw Haruaki’s biwa left out on the veranda.

Curious, Yorimichi approached it. The biwa had been the first thing he’d heard when he’d come here, its mournful notes echoing through the villa. Had the biwa summoned the dragon? Could the biwa have awakened his own powers, so long dormant? Questions tumbled through his head, demanding answers. Yorimichi edged closer to the instrument. Perhaps it was a demon. Such things happened when an object reached one hundred years old. Some musical instruments were of great antiquity and thus contained remarkable powers—was this why a five-tailed fox played it?

He sank to his knees beside the biwa and stared at it. Made of cherry-wood with chestnut facing and twisted silken strings, the instrument lacked any other decoration. There were no scratches or any other marks to suggest its age. In fact, it didn’t seem all that special. Puzzled, Yorimichi reached out towards it.

A wet plopping sound distracted him, and he looked around to see Muhaku crawling across the floor, leaving a wet trail behind him. “Don’t touch it!”

Yorimichi pulled back.

“A fox’s biwa,” Muhaku continued. “How can you trust such an instrument? It might have spells laid upon it! Not that I can sense any, but you can’t be too careful. Foxes are tricky beasts. You have a look—chant a spell, see if it’s infected with fox-magic.”

Focusing his mind, Yorimichi murmured an incantation but could see nothing out of the ordinary. “It seems simply to be a biwa.”

“Highly unlikely.” Muhaku ventured closer. His long, sticky tongue darted out to taste the side of the instrument. “Hmm. Very curious. You could be right, Yorimichi, but I would still urge you to caution.”

“It’s just a biwa.” Braver now, Yorimichi lifted it and set it in his lap. He curled one hand around its neck and stroked a chord with his other hand. The notes swelled through the garden, falling like rain. The sound was so pleasant that he did it again.

“Do you often go around handling things that belong to others?” asked a voice in his ear.

Yorimichi yelped and fumbled his grip on the biwa. He spun around; Muhaku had vanished, and standing behind him was Haruaki. The prince’s counsellor was back in human form, though Yorimichi could still see the underlying fox-face beneath his skin. The sight was disquieting, and Yorimichi found himself staring, unable to reply.

Haruaki made a sound of annoyance. “You onmyouji really are a disgrace. You talk when you’re supposed to be silent and remain silent when asked a question... Well, I suppose such behaviour is all that can be expected from humans.”

“I’m sorry.” Yorimichi hoped he sounded humble. He held up the biwa. “I was just admiring it. The sound is remarkably true.”

Haruaki almost snatched it from his grasp. Yorimichi had to blink to rid himself of the image of the fox’s five snowy white tails flicking back and forth in irritation.

“I suppose you thought it was haunted,” Haruaki said with a disdainful sniff.

“I thought it might be a demon.”

Another sniff. “A demon! How ridiculous. This instrument is only ninety-six years old. How can it be a demon?”

Yorimichi bit his lip and turned away, glancing towards the partitioned room on the other side of the garden where Shinnou now sat alone, pied robes spread around him. He looked pensive, lonely. Yorimichi knew how it felt to be alone, and once more his sympathy was roused for the disgraced prince. A sigh escaped his lips.

With a rustle of silk, Haruaki knelt and took up the biwa. He plucked at the strings with long, claw-like nails, the resulting notes sharp and clear. The notes became a sad tune, a melody that Yorimichi didn’t recognise. Across the garden came movement, the stirring of a breeze, a swirl of power—not enough to call forth a dragon, but enough for Yorimichi to recognise there was something there, something hidden.

“Where did it come from, your biwa?”

Haruaki’s hands stilled and the tune faded. “From a residence in the capital.”

“Oh.” Yorimichi didn’t know what to say next.

“You look like the sort of person who enjoys tales.” Haruaki gave him a sidelong glance, golden fox-eyes gleaming. “Maybe you’ll enjoy this one.” He struck another flurry of notes from the instrument. “The biwa was a gift from a lady to her husband when they married.”

Yorimichi eyed the plain body of the instrument. “But...”

“The lady was from the provincial governor class,” Haruaki explained. “As she told her husband, what did it matter that the biwa was undecorated when its sound was so true? And her husband, though he liked fine things, agreed with her—as would any man, because his bride was remarkably beautiful. She was so beautiful that he could overlook her not-so-exalted birth and her gift of a plain biwa.”

“He sounds very shallow,” Yorimichi said.

Haruaki almost smiled. “Probably he was—but he was typical of the higher-ranking individuals at court. You know what they’re like.”

Yorimichi nodded.

“Well,” continued Haruaki, plucking a few more chords, “at first the marriage was a success. The husband liked to please his wife, so he played the biwa for her every time he visited her. She would listen in delight, and as their affection grew, she said the biwa would be a symbol of their love.

“Of course these things never last. The lady became pregnant, and while she was apart from her husband, he amused himself with other women.” Haruaki let the notes fade. “She gave birth to a son, and her husband showered her with gifts but not with his attention. By now the lady knew she had rivals, but she believed that if her husband would come and play the biwa again, he would remember how much they loved one another. But no matter how many messages she sent, he stayed away.”

“What a heartless man,” Yorimichi murmured, his gaze sweeping the garden again before coming to rest on Shinnou’s figure. “How sad and lonely the lady must have been!”

“A female fox in this position would demand justice,” Haruaki said. “But the lady was human and therefore timid, so she turned her hurt inwards and instead focused her devotion on her son. When he was old enough, she taught him to play the biwa. The boy was quite precocious, mastering difficult tunes with ease. The lady praised him and said the biwa would always be a symbol of their love for one another.”

Yorimichi looked at the fox. “She placed a lot of power in the instrument.”

Haruaki set the biwa down on the veranda. “Humans place a lot of faith in symbols. It was just a biwa until her belief made it something else: the instrument—literally—of her revenge.”

“Revenge.” Yorimichi shivered. “What happened?”

“As the son grew older, he remained close to his mother and rejected his father. Naturally this was considered an intolerable situation, and father and son argued constantly. One day, when the son was playing the biwa, his father came to visit and they began arguing again. Harsh words were spoken about the lady. The son had heard enough, and in his rage he struck his father with the instrument. His father fell down, hit his head, and became seriously ill.”

The bluntness of the tale shocked Yorimichi. “That’s terrible!”

“Isn’t it.” Haruaki folded his hands into his lap. “Full of grief and shame, the son cast out the biwa. His mother took it, mended it, and placed it on the garden shrine as an offering to the kami. She begged for her husband’s life to be spared. He recovered, and though he reconciled with his son, his wife was so ashamed of what had happened that she cut her hair and became a nun.”

Yorimichi frowned. “And how did the biwa come into your possession?”

“I took it from the shrine.”

A fresh shock went through Yorimichi. “You—you’re not a god!”

Haruaki bared his teeth. “I’m halfway there.”

“You stole the biwa.” Yorimichi shook his head. “You stole it from this family...”

“Not just any family.” Haruaki gave the instrument a fond pat. “It belonged to Koretaka Shinnou’s great-grandfather.”

Yorimichi stared at the biwa in horror. “You stole from the imperial family!”

“I did not steal. I merely borrowed it.” Haruaki looked annoyed. “Besides, it has now returned to its true owner. I play it for Miya-sama at his request, as you have already seen. My music brings him peace.”

“Your music, or the knowledge that it’s played on his great-grandfather’s biwa?”

The fox shrugged. “Does it matter? As I said to you before, humans place a lot of faith in symbols. Too much faith, perhaps. You humans can make the ordinary extraordinary, just as you can render the extraordinary ordinary. Things that mean nothing suddenly become everything. It’s all a matter of perception.” Haruaki paused and gave him another glinting sidelong look “Isn’t that what you’ve learned since you came here?”

Yorimichi considered all he’d seen at the villa and measured it against the sudden inexplicable return of his powers. “I suppose. In a manner of speaking.”

He stopped, his attention caught by movement on the other side of the garden. Shinnou stood and shook out his robes, then glided into the shadows of the house. Yorimichi watched him go, then said, “Sometimes, though, the extraordinary remains extraordinary, and all attempts at making it ordinary fail.”

Haruaki looked in the same direction. “Indeed,” he said softly. “There are still some symbols that foxes and men can put their faith in.”

Soft silence fell, drifting around them. Yorimichi and Haruaki sat on the veranda with the biwa between them, waiting for a summons from Shinnou, waiting for something extraordinary.