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Business as Usual

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Friday, May 5, 2000

Learjet to Tokyo

 

“I need the camera feed from Minato,” Seishiro ordered before they were even strapped in. “And have a heli waiting for us at the airfield. How long till Tokyo?”

“One hour, fifteen minutes, sir,” their pilot answered. The sleek jet with the nondescript painting was already moving. Subaru hurried to belt in. Wall-mounted monitors on the backwall of the cockpit lit up. The one in front of Subaru showed a map of Japan with a red dot representing their flight and what looked like travelling speed, height, and estimated time of flight. Seishiro’s showed a map of Tokyo. He used a keyboard embedded in the table in front of him to zoom in on Shibaura.

“Populace?” Seishiro inquired while their plane gained speed. Subaru clasped the armrests of his seat tightly when the jet rose steeply.

“Minimal, sir,” their copilot answered. “It’s Children’s day[1] and the harbor isn’t exactly a place for carp flags. We’re spreading news about a gas leak near Shibaura South Wharf park, and Tsusui’s team is on location to obscure the bridge view.”

Seishiro studied the map, panning swiftly across it. “Tell Tsusui to make sure the artificial fog also cuts the view from Odaiba. The coin-operated binoculars along the beachside have a direct line of sight.”

“Understood. Feed from the remaining cameras is coming through, sir.” Windows opened in the corners of the map, showing grainy camera feeds of an almost empty container yard. White numbers showed their position on the map; four, five, and six were red.

“Blind zone of two hundred meters.” Seishiro studied the map. “Were the feeds lost consecutively or simultaneously?”

“Five and six simultaneously, four three minutes later.”

“Whatever it is, it’s powerful.”

“I can send a shiki ahead to query the area,” Subaru offered. “We don’t know yet if it’s your case or mine.”

Seishiro snorted. “With an initial affected zone of a hundred and fifty meters? I don’t need a case assessment to know that’s going to end up on my plate.”

“Our plate,” Subaru corrected quietly. “Omi placed the wards in Shibaura, so the Sumeragi are already involved. And we shared ch'i less than three days ago.” – Their copilot turned in his seat and started openmouthed at them. – “Any apparition will notice that. I’ll send a shiki ahead to see—”

“No shiki!” Seishiro snapped. “There’s a good chance that the cameras went unnoticed, but a shiki will definitely attract attention” He frowned. “Same as the wards. Is Omi nearby?”

“No.” Subaru shook his head. “He’s in Okutama.”

“How far is that from Shibaura?” Seishiro asked the co-pilot.

A moment later the map zoomed out to show the area of greater Tokyo with a line linking Okutama train station and Shibaura wharf. “Approximately sixty kilometers linear distance, sir.”

Seishiro nodded. “Too far inland to lure anything off the wharf.” At Subaru: “Are you sure he’s not closer?”

“He’s got a little daughter. They are likely flying carp flags and eating sweets today.”

Seishiro tossed him the phone. “Confirm that. Make sure he stays out of Tokyo-proper.” At the pilot: “ETA Tokyo?”

“We’ll make Haneda in 42 minutes, sir.”

 

A white helicopter waited with slowly circling rotors next to the end of the landing field where their Learjet came to a halt after a sharp descent. Side- and copilot doors stood open, waiting for them. “Causes the least stir downtown,” Seishiro explained when Subaru slowed at the sight of rescue helicopter markings. “Rear seat. Strap in.” He pushed past Subaru to swing in on the copilot seat. “The parking lot at the north west entrance of Tokyu Shipping in Shibaura,” he ordered the pilot, pulling the cockpit door shut. “Come in low from the west. Don’t go over water.”

“Understood, sir.” A glance back confirmed that Subaru had strapped in. The side door closed with a bang. The rapid exchange between air traffic control and their pilot requesting emergency clearance for overflying Ota and Shinagawa city proper was transmitted via their headphones. A moment later, the machine lifted off, gained height rapidly, and swerved first west then north, following the train tracks. Above a long-stretched railway yard it turned east again, coming in between a couple high-rises, then crossed way too low over the Yurikamome tracks and set down on a deserted parking lot shielded from the container yard by a line of scruffy trees and a five-story office building.

 

Minato-ku, Tokyo
Shibaura South Wharf
May 5, 2000 – 16:36

 

Dust whirled up when Subaru jumped down onto the unpaved parking lot, wishing briefly for his sturdy boots rather than the light canvas shoes he still wore from Okinawa. Seishiro signaled the pilot to take off the moment they had both cleared the rotors. Pale pink petals mixed into the dust billowing up under the helicopter’s rotors, whirling around Seishiro, the scent of sakura heavy on the air.

Subaru's marks tingled.

“The Tree says hello,” Seishiro said wryly, his hair stirred by a wind that had nothing to do with the helicopter.

“And that doesn’t draw attention?” Subaru asked, brushing dust and pristine white petals off his shirt. The Sakura’s presence tingled against his skin. Involuntarily, he checked that the ofuda he’d prepared on the flight were still in his pockets.

“Tightly contained.” Seishiro was already heading towards the paved street and the container yard beyond, talking over his shoulder. “You didn’t think I’d get in by helicopter without obscuring the approach, did you?”

Subaru ran to catch up. “Let’s split up. If you go through the main gate, I'll follow the water’s edge and see where and how Omi's wards were breached.”

Seishiro nodded. “If anything comes up, query the marks, that’s not easily noticed.”

“Understood. Where’s the meeting point in case we have to retreat?”

“There is no retreat for me.” Seishiro studied the main gate grimly. “I am the final defense, but you’re welcome to run if it gets rough.”

Subaru froze. He hadn’t— “What if you fail?”

“Then my death gives the Sakura a direct link to the threat, and for anything less than an amatsukami[2] in person that also solves the issue. And if the gods turn against us—” Seishiro crossed the deserted street diagonally, his voice floating back to him. “—it wouldn’t matter anyway.”

 

It would very much matter to me. Subaru hurried towards the freight quay and sensed the first twang of Omi’s wards as he approached. Whatever had entered hadn’t unraveled them completely. Because it didn’t have the strength, or because it hadn’t bothered? Hoping for the former, he tested the smaller gate blocking access here. Locked. Drawing on his powers, he pushed himself over and across it.

The quay was deserted; not a person in sight, no machines running. Containers were stacked three-high on the landward side of the quay street, the seaside was a sheer, barrierless drop to the churning harbor water. Subaru stepped to the edge. Omi had warded the transition between water and land precisely, had tied the wards to the top of the harbor wall with the yellow and black safety pattern. It was low tide; brownish-green water with an oily sheen sloshed against the concrete almost three meters below. There weren’t any ships moored at the quay, a detail to be grateful for – getting access to a container ship would have been difficult. His eyes followed the water line, observing the continuous sway of the waves. Nothing seemed out of order.

He slowly proceeded along the quay, continuously feeling for the wards. Where had they been breached? And when? Subaru frowned. He should have inquired about the tide at the time the cameras went dark. The water could have been higher, the mode of crossing the wards different—

The wards ended, not in an abrupt tear, but in a frayed ending, as if the protective threads had been chewed through rather than cut. Wild power, unleashed. Subaru closed his fingers around the strongest protective ofuda he’d prepared on the plane and looked over the edge again, almost leaping back at the sight. Instead of squabbling waves, he saw black bodies struggling beneath, climbing onto each other, grappling for a hold on the cracked concrete to pull themselves up.

Moryo[3]. He'd never seen so many of the river corpse eaters in one spot. The container yard would have been swarmed by them if not for the low tide limiting their access. The ofuda he threw was a brilliant white flame burning into the black flesh of the topmost Moryo. It shrieked and dropped back into the waves, taking a dozen of its companions with it. Subaru hurried to gather the threads of the shredded wards, mended them, tied his own wards over the opening. Moryo screeched below him. Another ofuda sent them scrambling again—

A flare of raw power blasted into Subaru’s back. Debris interspersed with sakura petals pelted the ground around him, hitting his back painfully as he clutched the concrete bollard to keep from going over the edge. He scrambled to his feet when it ceased. The container yard behind him was hidden in a whirling cloud of debris, container parts, and – Sakura? A giant shadow moved inside the tempest. The marks on Subaru's hands glared white. Subaru had barely time to throw up a pentacle shield before another wave of power burst against it. His light shoes slipped over the concrete from the impact, forcing him to ram the two lower points of the shield into the ground to anchor it.

He had fought Seishiro twice in the past year, but this—Subaru shook his head. If this was the power Seishiro commanded when he was serious—

Sakura branches, as thick as his waist, wound around a squirming, amorphous body of sickly green and dust-grey, writhed, tugged — and broke with spraying resin and a shrill scream of utmost pain. The amorphous body reared up triumphantly, solidified, lashed out—

No! Frantically, Subaru reached for his power as a Seal. A kekkai sprung from the wish to protect and Seishiro was right in front of him. On his knees. Bleeding. About to be struck—

Nothing happened. The kekkai of Rainbow Bridge, achingly familiar, vibrated against his side. Subaru reached for it, wove his shield into it, dragged it closer and threw it over the container yard, binding the intruder raging against it. Shibaura Anchorage shook in its foundations but held.

He heard Seishiro’s incantation before the dust settled enough to see anything. Sakura petals whirled up again, followed by branches. This time they met no resistance. Black blood scattered. The concrete smoked where it landed. A flash of light—

And it was gone. Dust and debris settled. The Sakura’s branches dissolved. Blossom-tufted twigs brushed over its guardian as Subaru watched, seeing dirt and blood vanish from Seishiro's skin. He drew a deep breath and released his shield, allowing the overstretched kekkai to settle back into its normal location, protecting Tokyo Harbor—

—and his nightmares. He swallowed. Spiritual power rose sharply as Seishiro came over. The marks on Subaru's hands flared again. Then he felt it. The sakanagi rushing towards them—towards Seishiro—was as intense as the spiritual conflagration that had removed the demon. A fiery storm about to consume anything and anyone in its path.

Subaru gasped. “You didn't obviate—?”

“No time for finesse.” Seishiro brushed past him to the water’s edge. The glow of the black fuda in his hands lost against the flares racing towards him. He threw them simultaneously, out over the water, into the water.

The sakanagi split around them, bloomed into a perfect star of destructive energy, each trail following one of the fuda towards a black form hurtling away under the waves. An explosion ripped the waves open when the first one was struck. Flesh and intestines rained onto the blood-stained waves. Another one. And another—

Fish? Subaru shook his head. No, too big. What? “The Moryo.”

“—won't be missed. Spares me the paperwork for collateral.” Seishiro stuffed his shaking hands into his pockets. “Come. I need a coffee.”

 

To Subaru’s surprise that meant crossing the Rainbow Bridge for a place in Odaiba. The agitated kekkai strummed against his shields as they walked across; the Yurikamome services had not yet resumed after the declared ‘gas leak’ in Shibaura. He felt uneasy, on edge. The last time, he’d been here on foot had been—

No. He quickened his pace. He would not go there right now.

The café wasn’t far from the end of the pedestrian walkway. Busy as it was, Subaru watched bemused how Seishiro ensured they’d get a seat at the window, giving a full view of the still crowded waterfront outside and the bridge beyond in the warm late-afternoon sun. The fake fog that had obscured the container yard was already dissipating. Seishiro ordered a creamy latte and an ashtray. Subaru stayed with plain drip coffee. He declined the offer of a cigarette and watched Seishiro lighting up with still shaking hands.

“Do you always do this after a job?” Subaru asked quietly.

Seishiro slowly exhaled the smoke. “Only after demons,” he admitted, nodding towards the crowd outside. “Their obliviousness means a job well done.”

“If you had struck me like that last year…” Subaru didn’t finish the sentence.

“I was your opponent,” Seishiro corrected him, “not the Sakura.” Subaru followed his gaze as he studied the people outside, young people flirting, parents watching their children, two old women sitting on a bench by the water.

Seishiro drank from his coffee, then put the glass aside and tapped ash from his cigarette. “You tried to form a kekkai.” It wasn't a question. Smoke curled up from the cigarette between his fingers. 

Subaru froze. On the other side of the windowpane, the Rainbow Bridge lay in ruins. Shibaura Tower still stood, but Odaiba tower had fallen. The water was churning around its shattered foundation. Trembling, he reached for Seishiro, expecting his hand to touch nothing, to pass through and—

—found firm flesh, solid, warm. 

“It’s how I see it. How I keep seeing it, even after walking across it,” Seishiro said without looking at him. “A part of Odaiba tower hit my shoulder. The scar is still there. What does that say about the Dao?”

“That we’re both scarred from the Final Year,” Subaru said quietly, almost choking on the words. “I felt you dying in my arms. I keep having nightmares about it.” He drew a deep quivering breath, inhaling the second-hand smoke from Seishiro’s cigarette. “It’s a spiritual scar. It may fade, but it won’t go away.”

Seishiro shook his head, still studying the picture before him. Ruins in turbid water that no one but them was seeing. “Did you know they built it to withstand a Shindo seven?” He pushed himself up from his seat, left the lit cigarette in the ashtray and his half-drunken coffee behind as he headed for the exit.

Outside, the bridge stood whole again. Its white illumination glowing in the deepening dusk. A ship’s horn sounded. The rattling of the first Yurikamome train was barely audible over the din of the voices. 

 

Ueno-Sakuragi-cho, Tokyo,

May 5, 2000 – 21:36

 

“Somehow I thought I’d return with my luggage,” Subaru sighed, rummaging through his side of the closet to find night clothes.

“The section will send it to the office.” Seishiro shrugged. “It’ll probably wait for us on Monday, ostentatious well-wishes, a dozen tracers, and other unpleasantries included.”

“I don’t believe Shang-san would do any such thing,” Subaru reproached him. “And Ameru-san certainly won’t.”

“But anybody at the office will.” Seishiro tossed his dusty shirt into the laundry basket and headed for the bath. “Look on the bright side, at least you know where it is. Had we returned flying commercial, then your guess would be as good as mine.”

“Sapporo?” Subaru suggested.

“Too easy. Try Wakkanai[4] and head north.”

“North? From where?”

The bathroom door closed on Seishiro’s laugh.

 

Seishiro left the house an hour later, the situation at the wharf churning in his thoughts as he crossed the Kototoi-dori and headed for the park. Subaru’s powers as a Seal were obviously fading, or he would have raised a kekkai himself, yet he’d used one of Tokyo’s major kekkai to secure his temporary wards. What did that mean? How was that even possible? And then there was the Sakura, strong in his own mind, intensifying even more since they’d left the spiritual sphere of the Pine. The Tree had marveled at his regeneration; it was intrigued by the changed flavor of his ch’i and the vestiges of celestial jing still clinging to it. Seishiro was all too aware that both, the ch’i and its jing-source, had made the difference against what had most likely been one of Susanoo’s lieutenants. He sighed. They’d have to ensure the wards held once they disentangled the kekkai from them. It had been a close shave. If they had to face one of the generals—

He didn’t want to go there.

You should have brought Su-chan… the Sakura told him, a flutter of petals whispering invisibly over his cheek way before he reached the Tree itself.

“He’s sleeping. Demons aren’t his usual fare.” The Tree’s maboroshi closed around him, revealing it in all its unblemished glory as it stood sound in the spirit night, having taken the demon’s power to heal itself. Still, the whip-crack of a major branch bursting, spraying him and the entangled demon with blood-filled resin wasn’t something he would forget anytime soon. He ran his hand over the gnarled black trunk, felt the ancient magic like a living pulse against his palm as he crouched down to study the resin-framed scar sealing in place the wakizashi that had delivered the Emperor’s Murderer to the Tree. Unchanged. Solid.

A blossom-cushioned twig tousled his hair, curled under his chin to raise him up. …it didn’t affect me… Thick blossoms brushed his exposed skin as if sniffing, inhaling the flavor of his changed ch’i; a rough-barked twig rasped sharply across his pulse without drawing blood. …you and Su-chan did

Seishiro froze. “How?”

Now I too exist in the Age of the Dao. And I need my Sakurazukamori present when facing the wrathful ones

But he’d been there, he— Seishiro reeled as he realized what the Tree meant.

 

May 6, 2000 – 00:36

 

Subaru woke from the sensation of petals brushing over his cheek. A faint russet haze surrounded the bed in the dark, intensifying. Seishiro’s side of the bed was still empty, the bed clothes unstirred. The scent of sakura hung heavy in the air, embracing, encompassing, swallowing him. Yet no petals fells onto the bed. Yet.

Blossoms replaced the petals touching him, growing thicker, pressing closer. Subaru frowned, sat up, and the maboroshi closed completely. The bed underneath him was gone. Twigs brushed over him, tugging at the silk of his pajamas. He shivered at the sensation of rough bark rasping over the skin above his pulse. He slapped the twig aside and stood on blood-covered ground that left his bare feet unstained. The petals he touched turned a brilliant white. “What do you want?” he demanded sharply.

…for my Sakurazukamori to do his duty…

Subaru crossed his arms. “Why are you telling me instead of Seishiro?”

…because his service isn’t lacking…

“I don't serve you!”

…Yet you brought me one I desired for over a millennium. You bound a wrathful one for me to pierce and sever from this realm. You fed me, Sumeragi. Tell me, how is that not serving me?...

“It was not meant to be service.”

Intention doesn’t matter…

“Not in your world.” Subaru dug in his feet, holding his ground. More petals turned white. “It matters in mine.”

…And why do you think that matters?... The wide crown above him whispered with countless petals falling like snow around him. …Even in the age of the Dao I stand between...

“We made a mistake.” Seishiro said in the darkness behind the Sakura. A moment later, he came around the black trunk. He looked ruffled, three buttons of his wrinkled shirt were undone, but his expression was dead-serious. “The Dao changes everything. At once. Not incrementally as we thought. It’s just that we all can handle moderate incursions, but with something as serious as a demon—”

“—or my ancestor,” Subaru added.

“—that's no longer enough.” Seishiro sat down heavily on a thick gnarled root, resting his elbows on his knees. Subaru spotted deep pink petals and even the occasional leaf sticking between the wavy strands of his hair, when Seishiro looked up at him. “Do you know what that means?”

Subaru felt cold. “That we don’t have time.”

 

Subaru woke in their bed from the sounds of soft music and a sizzling pan. The smell of fried eggs coming from the kitchen erased the last whiff of sakura clinging to his skin.

“I didn’t know we left fresh produce and eggs in the fridge,” he commented after a glimpse in Seishiro’s pan.

“We didn’t. I stopped by the konbini on my way back from the park.”

“When did you come back?”

“Around two in the morning.” Seishiro shrugged, heaping frittata on two plates, and setting one down in front of Subaru.

It smelled delicious, Seishiro had mixed fruit with the vegetables in the eggs, reminding Subaru of Okinawa. He swallowed. “I dreamed of the Sakura last night, demanding I serve as Sakurazukamori beside you because of what happened at the wharf.”

“It wasn't a dream.”

Subaru froze, his chopsticks with a bite of frittata halfway to his mouth. “I can’t possibly serve Tsukiyomi’s descendant!”

“Don’t get stuck on the description the Tree used. The Sakura doesn’t differentiate between the border it protects and itself. We do.” He looked down at his dish and added quietly, “The gods do.”

Subaru put his chopsticks down. “Are you sure about that?”

“We received celestial jing. Do you think that was an accident?” Seishiro studied him thoughtfully. “The Sakura was very… interested in that.”

Subaru snorted, barely keeping from saying ‘I bet!’ out loud.

“And its hold in the world of the living is a cherry tree,” Seishiro continued, “requiring Amaterasu’s gift to exist.”

Amaterasu granted the Sakura’s existence. And the Sakura protected Amaterasu’s heirs. Subaru remembered well the Tree’s obvious scorn when he’d implied otherwise before Destiny changed. Put in these terms, it was obvious. The gods wanted the border protected from intrusion of either side. He drew a deep breath, mechanically raised his chopsticks to eat the now cooled piece of frittata before answering. “I reject the title, not the position.”

 

 

May 9, 2000 - Monday

 

Kasumigaseki, Tokyo,
Central Government Office Building 6B
Onmyo-Ryo – Sakura Enterprises Inc.

 

Seishiro parked the car in his reserved spot in front of the still-blooming azalea hedge. There was a perceptible gap in the deep-red flowers where Subaru had forced his way through the bushes in front of it, but the yellow paint markings on the concrete had faded, the blood inside them long gone. In reality. In Subaru’s mind, it was still there. He drew a deep breath and opened the passenger door.

The mingled scents of azalea and the exhaust fumes of morning rush hour tickled in his nose as he took his satchel from the backseat and got out. Watching Seishiro cast a protective spell on the car before heading inside was a reminder not to trust anyone here.

“Do you know whom your people sent here?” Seishiro asked, as he held the entrance door for him. A standard sign for the Onmyo-Ryo on the first floor had been attached to the wall next to it.

Subaru shook his head. “It was still being debated when we left for Okinawa and I didn’t bother to call yesterday.”

Seishiro said nothing. They both eschewed the lift. For Subaru it was a habit born out of the destruction witnessed in the Final Year, and he wondered if it were the same for Seishiro – or if it had more to do with him not trusting anything to which his people had access regularly. Probably a combination of both, Subaru decided as they headed up the stairs.

The first floor smelled of fresh paint and new furniture. A wide glass door had been installed, replacing the metal one previously sealing the unused floor. The reception area visible through the plain glass held the same light grey carpet used above, but the desk was white and scrolls with protective ofuda hung on the wall behind it. A temporary sign next to the door indicated the Onmyo-Ryo and informed of opening hours between 09:00 and 17:00; there hadn’t been time to have the door engraved properly. The Sumeragi phone number was given in case of emergencies outside office hours. A protective ofuda was attached to each wing of the door. Seishiro arched a brow at them, appearing amused, but said nothing as they continued up to the second floor.

~:~:~:~:~

“Good morning.” Seishiro entered Sakura Enterprises with verve and without waiting for Subaru. Namane Ayako was on reception during official working hours. He gave her a bright smile. “My usual coffee please. I trust the files related to Friday’s event are on my desk?”

“Yes, sirs.” Namane greeted them both properly and continued, “Your and Sumeragi-sama’s luggage is waiting in your respective offices. The NPSC expects your report about Shibaura wharf by midday.”

Seishiro grimaced and headed towards his office. “Please be so kind as to show Sumeragi-san the operation of the electronics. I’ll see that Kosuke gets his paper trail.”

“Of course, sir.”

His luggage was indeed sitting carefully stacked beside the door. Also stacked were the papers on his desk. Shibaura wharf was going to be a messy report. It had been a messy incident. And there was still the issue of “A team is on the way to investigate.” Shang's direct words. And she had no reason to lie about that.

He had ordered the place watched 24/7. A team ought to have been on location!

~:~:~:~:~

Subaru sat down in his office chair after Namane-san had left and studied the computer screen on the side of his desk with something of dismay. There was no denying it, he needed to take a computer course just to get the basics of it. Seishiro’s secretary, whose frosty demeanor had thawed rapidly after he’d apologized deeply for spellbinding her when he had been under Kali’s influence, had explained patiently how emails, case files, and what-nots could be accessed, written, edited, saved, and sent, but he’d been in well over his head most of the time.

When he’d inquired about the fax machine, he’d been informed that correctly encrypted emails were a lot more reliable. To which he had to tell her that his people in Kyoto wouldn’t be able to receive them and that his case files had to be faxed. Apparently, there was a fax machine under the reception desk – for contacts with some of the government departments and old-fashioned companies – which could be used until the computer system in Kyoto was operational. Subaru expected that to be around the year 3k.

Now, he was supposed to set his own password and ‘customize his personal interface’ – whatever that was. For now, he was glad that there were still reports on paper and a telephone system that looked like the one at home, albeit with more speed-dial keys for in-house calls. He’d manage for the time being. And as for the rest of his work here…

The wards, some of them placed concealed during the renovation, had been untouched. Ditto the marker spells he’d set before they’d left for Okinawa. The door had been opened twice in his absence; once for the technician to reset the electronics, and early this morning to deposit his luggage beside the door. No further intrusion. Seishiro’s people had respected his space – or at least the threat he might pose. He had yet to inspect the luggage…

…but that had to wait. He couldn’t postpone dealing with the representatives his clan had sent to assist him in Tokyo any longer. Remembering Seishiro’s advice to summon his people instead of going to them to stress that he was head of the house, he resisted the impulse to head downstairs and used the phone instead. Taking up the receiver, he pressed the short dial labeled with OMR exec.

A polite voice said, “Your call could not be connected, please check the number and try again. If your called number is correct, contact your operator.” Followed by the faint buzzing of an empty line.

He tried again. The same result.

Maybe the phone wasn't programmed yet? He carefully dialed the number by hand.

“Your call could not be connected, please check the number and try again. If your called number is correct, contact your operator.” Subaru cancelled the call and tried the key labeled ‘reception’.

Namane-san answered after the first ring. “How may I help you, Sumeragi-sama?”

“There’s something wrong with my phone,” Subaru told her. “I cannot reach the representative of my clan in the OMR.”

“I will send somebody downstairs to inform the gentleman of your wish to speak with him,” she replied in a studiously neutral voice. “He refuses to use the phone system on principle and insists on keeping it disconnected while he is in.”

Subaru groaned inwardly. “Thank you, Namane-san, but please don’t bother. I will contact them tomorrow.” He hung up. Year 3k might be optimistic.

Subaru contemplated heading out to Shibaura to check and strengthen the wards he’d restored after the demon fight on Friday, but it would seem too much of a flight. With a wry smile he admitted to himself that at this point the flight would be more from his people than from the Sakurazuka. And he still had to check his luggage. He sighed and called Omi in Okutama to have him test and strengthen the wards at the wharf instead. After all, Omi was the one who had initially placed them. And he answered his phone.

~:~:~:~:~

“Namane, please forward the report about Shibaura wharf to the NPSC and send Motohiro to my office. Thank you.” Seishiro put the receiver down. The log showing the last accesses to the personnel schedule was still displayed on his monitor.

He didn’t have to wait long before his chief financial officer, black leather folder doubtlessly holding the current budget estimates under his arm, was ushered into his office. Namane bowed politely, set a small tray with coffee and cups on his desk, and left, closing the door behind her.

Casually checking coffee, cups, and tray for tracers, Seishiro poured himself a cup, and settled back in his chair. “There are a couple positions in the last budget I’d like to discuss with you.” He signaled Motohiro to sit down, not bothering to offer him coffee. “Namely the reduced staff expenses in the last eight days.”

Motohiro took a seat in front of his desk and placed his opened folder in front of him, showing several budget positions highlighted and marked in red, before answering him. “Operational and construction costs have skyrocketed to a non-sustainable level since April 20. I had to streamline our expenses to avoid tapping into the reserve funds.” Motohiro scowled. “The current situation is not an emergency that justifies their depletion.”

“The reserves are for tackling the unforeseen,” Seishiro replied. “Unforeseen as in, the requirement to restructure Japan’s spiritual defense to accommodate the Dao, but that is beside the point.” He put his cup down, leaned forward, and studied his CFO inquisitively before asking mildly, “Since when do you believe you have the authority to countermand my orders?”

Motohiro gasped. “I did no such thing! But your cooperation with the Sumeragi by installing the OMR in our facilities is an expensive fancy, and the cost of a direct observation team during holidays, when electronics are sufficient—”

“You owe your life to that cooperation,” Seishiro informed him casually. “Had the Sumeragi-wards not entertained Susanoo’s lieutenant enough to stay on the wharf instead of venturing downtown, I would require a new CFO by now.

“And as for the construction costs – the OMR is an official sub-department of Home Affairs and the NPSC. We are entitled to reimbursement. I expect to see the proper paperwork for that tom…” He trailed off. Five glowing white blossoms had appeared above the bright red face of his chief accountant, bobbing lively on translucent green stems while a faint smell of oranges wafted through his office.

“Sumeragi-sama, you cannot enter right now,” Namane's agitated voice came from outside. “He’s in a meeting. You—”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” – Subaru nodded at Seishiro – “but this cannot wait.” He didn’t bother to close the door as he entered. “Motohiro-san.” He studied their CFO, more precisely the five blossoms above said CFO’s head. “I believe five of your tracer spells are attached to my luggage and now my person. Please be so kind as to remove them.”

Motohiro’s mouth opened and closed like that of a beached carp. “How—how dare you to accuse me—”

“It appears I’m not the only senior official you annoyed today,” Seishiro told him, amused, and settled back in his chair. “You might want to consult a mirror.”

Namane, clearly struggling to maintain a straight face at the sight, wordlessly offered a powder compact with a mirror in the lid to Motohiro, who stared in horror at the floral ornamentation rising above his scalp.

“Would you like a coffee?” Seishiro indicated the unused cup on the tray to Subaru. “I assume those won’t fade fast.”

“Duration depends on the strength of the practitioner calling them forth,” Subaru told him, filling the offered cup with coffee. “In my case—” He shrugged. “A couple months.”

Months?!” Motohiro gasped, mortified.

“Yes,” Subaru told him brightly, “and don’t bother with a hat. They’ll always appear above anything you put on your head.” At Motohiro’s horrified expression, he smiled. “However, if you remove the source linking your magic with my person and belongings…” He shrugged.

Motohiro hurried to comply. “Finished,” he stated after a moment.

“You aren’t done yet,” Subaru reminded him. “Remove the others as well.”

“What others?” Motohiro protested. “I didn’t—”

“It’s one blossom per spell, Motohiro-san,” Subaru reminded him. “Do you wish to wear the remaining four?”

Motohiro consulted the tiny mirror again and slumped.

“And while we are at it,” Seishiro drawled. “I’d like to know why you felt it prudent to trace him in the first place. It is a rather inconvenient habit of yours.”

“Sumeragi-san did not register his domicile,” Motohiro informed him brusquely. “As CFO I am responsible for the correct budgeting, including living costs of top-level employees. For that, correct address data are a requirement.”

“I do not work for your organization!” Subaru put his cup down with an audible clink. “I am associated with the OMR, same as the Sakurazukamori.”

“Indeed,” Seishiro confirmed with a nod. “Which leaves me with the impression that Motohiro here needs to get his papers in order.”

“But correct address data—”

“Shall we fax yours to the Sumeragi in exchange?” Seishiro asked sweetly. “Or mine, for that matter?”

“Yours are fake anyways.” Motohiro huffed with a calculating glance at Subaru. “Otherwise, I would just copy them.”

“Fake?” Seishiro arched a brow. “I own the apartment. It’s not my fault if the workload prevents me from staying there.”

“If you excuse me, I’ll leave you to your meeting.” Subaru headed for the door. This time, he closed it behind him.

~:~:~:~:~

Sitting on the new grey wall-to-wall carpet of his office, Subaru checked the contents of his suitcase, counting shirts, pants, toiletries… He frowned at a small parcel wrapped in colorful paper with hibiscus blossoms and bound with red silk tassels. A band of protective spells was inked around it. The attached card read ‘A gift from Okinawa’. He noticed Ameru’s delicate penmanship on spells and card and set it aside on his desk, relieved.

He called Seishiro on the intercom. “I’m done for today. Shall I test your luggage for spells as well before we’re heading home?”

“Not necessary, already done,” came the reply and, “They weren’t stupid enough to try it with me.” Subaru got the impression of a dark smile on the other end. “My replies tend to involve a more abrasive kind of flowers. Ten minutes. I’ll fetch you.” He hung up.

Subaru took up the parcel again, turning it in his hands, and wondered if he should take it home or leave it here. He decided to leave it. Okinawa – the Ryukyus – had been more about the OMR than about him, and it would be good to know if any of the Mori officials were capable of tampering with Ameru’s protection spells. He doubted it but leaving it for today would be a good test. He put the parcel on the center on his desk pad and shouldered his bag.

 

“Do you want to look in on your people before we leave?” Seishiro inquired.

Subaru shook his head. “They made enough trouble even without showing up and introducing themselves. And flowers won’t cut it with them.”

Seishiro chuckled. “Nice handiwork with Motohiro,” he commented as they headed towards the exit. “What made you do it?”

“You told me to expect tracers, remember?” Subaru reminded him. “And when it comes down to it, tracers are just spells. Just very inconvenient ones to remove if you didn’t place them yourself.”

“Tell me about it,” Seishiro huffed. “But… orange blossoms?”

Subaru nodded politely at Namane still holding the front desk. “The tachibana[5] is the symbol for loyalty, home, longevity and luck; a spell based on it naturally reconnects with its source,” he explained, adding, “It’s actually a technique of my grandmother’s. We train gifted children from a very young age. Of course, we have a way to determine who causes mischief with spells. Our five-year-olds are as well-behaved as your financial officers.”

Namane at the reception desk made a choking noise that was cut short by the door closing behind them.

“I assume you never wore the flowers,” Seishiro commented as they headed down the stairs.

“More than once,” Subaru admitted with a laugh. “You’d be surprised.”

 


Interlude

Naha, Okinawa

 

The cacophony of industrial keyboard and telephone use filled the room briefly when Shang Namie – his colleague? counterpart? Ameru wasn’t yet sure – returned to her desk, balancing a small tray with a plain tea set and some biscuits. They’d divided the office between them with Shang using the part of the office that had held her predecessor’s desk… and his corpse; Ameru gladly had taken the other side, after removing an awful scroll about buried corpses.

Kyushu office doesn’t need the most skilled onmyoji. It needs somebody able to stay alive.

Shang offered him a cup of her tea and he accepted it, surreptitiously checking it for magical malfeasance, finding none. He nodded his thanks and sipped from the tea. It had been a strenuous first regular workday, with far more people working here than he had expected. People, who’d been scrupulously polite to him and almost deferential to Shang, which was a surprise given that she appeared younger than most of them. It reminded him not to make assumptions about the Sakurazuka. At least the computer system for scheduling and research was not that different from to the one he used in his bookshop, albeit way more complicated. He’d figure it out eventually. And he had to contact Kyoto. They’d promised three people for the OMR but given the industriousness outside that wouldn’t be enough. Ameru sighed. “I didn’t think the office of a small island like Okinawa would be that busy.”

“Okinawa?” Shang said, clearly surprised. “This is Kyushu section. We’re responsible for everything between Kitakyushu and Yaeyama,” she set her teacup aside and pointed at the map printed on her desk pad. “But you're right about Okinawa. Most cases requiring the Sakurazukamori are on Kyushu mainland, mostly Fukuoka and Kitakyushu, with Nagasaki being a distant third. Okinawa is quiet for us. The spiritual disturbances here go back to the war and before that the annexation.” She gave him a sad smile. “That’s either yours or at least local business.”

“So, you don’t know the Sakurazukamori that well?”

“I first met him in person last week,” she confirmed, “but I've been working for him since 1997.” She shrugged. “Sakura Enterprises is an equal opportunity employer. There aren’t many of those around here for people like me if you don’t want to work for the Americans.”

“Spiritually gifted people are always welcome,” Ameru said stiffly.

“Not if you are the daughter of a Ryukyuan kaminchu and a half-American father.” Shang snorted unladylike, pointing at her hair. “The only thing I got from my father’s side is a hair color for which most people here have to pay dearly at the salon, but it’s something neither the kaminchu nor anybody else are prepared to overlook. Sakurazuka… didn’t care.”

“Would he care about a pair of shisa in this office?” Ameru inquired, wondering what Subaru would make of the gift he’d snuck into his suitcase. “On Wednesday, it seemed that the Ryukyuan Guardian takes an interest in our activities after all.”

“Nothing we do here will stay hidden from the Pine anyways,” Shang shrugged. “I am of Ryukyuan mabui – and he knows that. Having the Pine’s representatives present will likely smooth things as a sign of goodwill. It’s worth a try.”

 

The next morning, a pair of clay shisa had appeared in the office. The protective male with its bared fangs sitting on the left corner of Shang’s desk, the female counterpart with a broad, closed-mouthed smile on the right corner of his own.


 

May 10, 2000 - Tuesday

 

Ueno-Sakuragi-cho, Tokyo,
07:24

 

Seishiro, chewing the last bites of his breakfast toast, watched Subaru studiously sorting case files for transport. It was kind of endearing. He hadn’t expected Subaru to bring his actual case files into the office in the foreseeable future. Yet here he was, and the two white cardboard boxes he’d bought for transporting his files weren’t even covered in protective fuda and salt.

“Would you mind fetching the car today?” Subaru asked, closing the lid of the second one. “These turned out quite heavy.”

Seishiro smirked. “What do I get for the effort?”

“Not having to haul one of these across the park to Ueno Station.”

 

Subaru was sitting on the doorstep, face turned into the morning sun, his boxes stacked beside him, when Seishiro stopped the car in front of the gate. Bemusedly, Seishiro observed Yoshino’s cat trying to decide between sitting on the boxes or Subaru’s lap. He unlocked the trunk and jingled the car keys out of the open window.

“Get going, or we’ll be late.”

Subaru got to his feet and picked up the boxes, delicately convincing the disappointed cat not to add its weight to the boxes. The cat followed him onto the sidewalk and Seishiro watched Subaru dragging the gate close with his boot once it was outside. The boxes landed with an audible thud in the trunk. Subaru closed it swiftly, then scooped up the cat and hurried to sit it down in Yoshino’s front yard. It stayed put when Subaru got onto the passenger seat, making Seishiro wonder if he had wasted a temporary binding spell to keep Yoshi from adorning their tires.

Subaru’s safety belt clicked, and Seishiro started the engine, glancing back over his shoulder, before backing out of their alley.

“Why the hurry?” he asked. “Do you have a job?”

Seishiro glanced at him via the rearview mirror. “Do you really want to know if somebody is going to die today?”

Subaru sighed. “No. But would you tell me?”

“Not unasked.” Seishiro waited for a chance to turn onto the Kototoi-dori. “Today’s paperwork. We footed the bill for the construction work, and I want reimbursement for that. Besides,” – he huffed – “keeping my people from decimating yours for their remarkable stupidity regarding basic office procedures is already a fulltime assignment.”

“One likely requiring a full team,” Subaru concurred.

“More like a dozen, if they keep getting on Namane’s wrong side.” At Subaru’s surprised expression, he laughed. “She’s my secretary for a reason.”

 

Kasumigaseki, Tokyo,
Central Government Office Building 6B
Onmyo-Ryo – Sakura Enterprises Inc.
2nd Floor – Office of Sumeragi Subaru

 

Subaru placed the cardboard boxes with his case files on the edge of his desk, before he hung his satchel onto the hook for coats by the door. His father’s gift still sat in the middle of his writing pad, untouched. The wards he’d placed on his – still empty – file cabinets were also intact. He’d sort his case files into them later today. Having opted for a dark wooden desk and off-white cabinets, he’d made sure there would be no mistaking his office for anyone else’s here. Seishiro’s was an affair in glass and chrome, and the other rooms here held black desks with steel elements, so there would be no excuses for anybody of Seishiro’s people to ‘accidentally’ use his office, same for his own people from the OMR. His office was darker than theirs, befitting his… perpetual involvement with the dark arts, as his grandmother had delicately put it. He sighed and sat down. They would have to deal with it. With a lot of things, actually. Starting right now. Calling the reception desk, he asked Namane to inform his representatives at the OMR that he wanted to speak with their senior official immediately.

“The gentleman in question will arrive shortly after completing his current appointment,” she informed him ten minutes later, “he’s assessing a respective client and does not wish to interrupt the performance.” Again, her voice was studiously neutral as she added, “I expect it to take another thirty minutes at least.”

Thirty min—!? Subaru thanked her and sat back, startled. Assessing somebody shouldn’t take longer than five minutes, the filing of the case data then could be done by basically anyone. In Kyoto, all of it was usually done by phone, with the caller just dictating the information to a receptionist. What were they doing?

Thoughtfully, he picked up the small parcel from Okinawa in front of him, rereading the delicately inked lines of protective spells circling it. It hadn’t been opened. The spells hadn’t even been probed. Determinedly, Subaru untied the band and cut open the wrapping paper, finding a small wooden box inside, only a few shades lighter than his desk. Inside, on a thick cushion of melon green velvet lay two small off-white ceramic shisa. A card with the same hibiscus motif as the paper stuck to the side.

A gift from Okinawa, Ameru’s elegant penmanship was easily recognizable to him by now, the lion to scare evil away, and the lioness to protect the good. Representing the duality at the heart of the Dao, they will warn you of ill intent in those around you, but I pray that you won’t need their help as much as I needed it in Kyoto.  ~Ameru.

Subaru closed the card and put it back into the box, realizing that the last line was meant only for him and nobody else in his clan. He picked up the lioness figurine and almost dropped it when the glazed off-white ceramic felt like warm fur to his touch. Vermillion eyes blinked at him, then the shisa hopped down from his hand. With a tiny roar, the male leaped out of the box to inspect his desk utensils. The tongue behind its white fangs as red as his eyes. Prowling across his desk, they looked like miniature versions of the Pine’s Guardians—

Seishiro picked up the phone on the first ring. “Yes?”

“I believe the Pine sent ambassadors,” Subaru told him.

 

None of the shisa darting around the office growled at Seishiro when he entered less than two minutes later, Subaru noted, though the female left a thin line of white fur dust across the black hem of Seishiro’s right trouser leg after he’d closed the door. Upon closer inspection, the same dust also covered Subaru’s own sleeves, his desk, and the carpet.

“This is… unexpected,” Seishiro said after observing the mayhem for a moment.

“Yes,” Subaru agreed. “They were in Ameru’s package.”

“You really ought to find out what your family’s ties to the island are.” Seishiro shook his head. “Returning them would be unwise, even without the filial link. The Pine could take offense. But we can’t let them rampage through Kasumigaseki, either—”

The shisa snarled viciously, a halo of tiny heckles rising around their necks. The glass door behind Seishiro opened without a knock, pushing him aside. A haraegushi[6] was waved vigorously through the door, its rustling stopped the growling of the shisa who hopped back onto Subaru’s desk.

“Subaru-san. You ought not insist on meeting in a defiled location. It does not befit our stations.”

Subaru suppressed a groan. “Tomoaki-san,” he greeted his elder with an admittedly not very formal bow. “This location is my own office. I personally ensure its cleanliness.”

Tomoaki, the haraegushi above his folded arms, shook his head in sorrow. “You cannot ensure purity any longer,” he corrected him calmly. “Not in your current—” He gave Seishiro a shallow bow and a dark glare at the same time. “—circumstances, but it’s good to see you at least physically hale after your ordeal.”

“Ordeal?” Subaru asked, exasperated. “I was on Okinawa.”

“Very recommendable beaches.” Seishiro confirmed, adding casually, “also a lot fewer relatives barging in on us unannounced.” Tomoaki swung the haraegushi at him. Seishiro brushed the offending paper wand out of his face. “Aim that at me again and you will be an impurity in this office.”

“Seishiro-san, this is not helping,” Subaru cut in. “And neither are you,” he told Tomoaki, “I sent for you, because your refusal to use normal office procedures made calling you impossible.” He drew a deep breath, calming himself to address Seishiro. “Please leave us, these are internal matters and,” – he glanced at the seemingly innocuous ceramic figurines of the shisa on his desk – “I believe it’s safe to discuss the ambassadors later.”

Seishiro also studied the figurines. “Apparently,” he agreed. “I’ll call you for lunch.” He closed the door behind him without sparing Tomoaki another glance.

“Even fewer manners than his subordinates,” Tomoaki stated, waving the haraegushi at the closed door for safety. “You ought to relocate your office downstairs.”

“And losing the one link that ensures cases are not routed around us?” Subaru asked acidly. “The point of the Onmyo-Ryo is the coordination of Japan’s spiritual defense, not just for us to have office space. Which brings us back to why I called you; this is the second day of operations and it’s already clear that the coordination isn’t working.”

“As can be expected when working with—” Tomoaki began.

“—on your end,” Subaru finished coldly. “And that has to change.”

Tomoaki sighed. “I promised your grandmother to ensure your welfare as best as possible in the given situation. Your insistence on using their methods does not make that easier.”

“Their methods?” Subaru inquired. “Such as taking phone calls and speaking with each other?”

“You of all people should know the risk of spells being sent via phone,” Tomoaki told him. “And in this house, with these people… it’s an unacceptable risk.”

“All phone lines in this building are scrambled, Tomoaki-san,” Subaru reminded him, “including the in-house lines. It is impossible to transmit magic with them. I tried it. You can try as well. It doesn’t work, so these phones are safe to use without banning circles. And that doesn’t change the fact that you refuse to talk with the Sakurazuka.”

Tomoaki snorted. “Of course, I am open to converse with those,” he corrected, “by sensible means! If they leave a written message, I will cleanse it, analyze the content for nefarious intent, then reply to it if appropriate.”

“Which takes an hour after receiving what could have been a thirty-seconds phone call,” Subaru replied. “And you don’t see that that doesn’t work in an office supposed to screen cases from all over Tokyo? You have to speak with them and the potential clients in person.”

“They refused purification before entering the office.”

“Clients calling the main estate don’t undergo purification, either,” Subaru reminded him with strained patience.

“Callers at the main estate may not be clients of them.”

“Which is what the OMR is supposed to determine. Unbiased, I may add. And forcing purification on Sakurazuka’s people each time they must give their perspective on a case, is not only unfeasible, but also downright offensive.”

“Offending them is not our concern,” Tomoaki reminded him haughtily. “In contrast to our spiritual integrity.”

Subaru had had enough. “May I remind you that for maintaining spiritual integrity, maintaining basic physical integrity is a requirement? Apparently, you forgot the nature of the Sakurazuka’s business. I am certain even their junior employees are quite capable of doing grievous bodily harm – and so far, you treated them with less than basic courtesy and respect.” Subaru stood, pushing his chair back, forcing Tomoaki to stand as well. “I strongly suggest you return to Kyoto.” Coming around his desk, he indicated the door. “Now. Because I am done shielding you from their ire, and the Sakurazukamori, whom you just tried to exorcise from this very office, certainly won’t bother!”

“Your grandmother insisted—”

“If you remain in Tokyo, I will not care what happens,” Subaru cut him off. “Do you understand me?” A faint purring arose from the desk behind him as he closed the door on offended Tomoaki’s heels. He trembled as he sat back down in his chair, resting his elbows on the desk pad. And they’d thought Okinawa was bad. He drew a deep breath. He had to call the main house before Tomoaki did so. It would just befit his luck if the one piece of information the elder accepted from this talk was that about safe phones in this house. He sighed and picked up the receiver.

 

“No, elder Tomoaki does not suffice!” Subaru snapped into the phone, stopping short of adding ‘I can’t bear having him around five minutes longer’ and instead said, “I require somebody with secretarial skills, grandmother. The Onmyo-Ryo is integrated with two government departments; it has to be organized accordingly.” He clamped down on his temper. “Please check the register for somebody with the appropriate qualifications.”

His grandmother’s voice was brittle as she answered, “Still, I wish for you to have a staff of stronger talents around you. You aren’t required to fulfil his expectations.”

No, but what about mine? Subaru thought sourly. Aloud, he said, “I’m not, but the interaction with the Sakurazuka is difficult enough even without the current communication deficits complicating matters further.”

“I see.” There was a stiff pause. “I will see what I can do. I’ll contact you with the details.”

The line was cut. Subaru sighed and put the receiver back onto the cradle. If this continued much longer, he would begin envying Seishiro for the ‘less consensual methods’ available to him. The Sumeragi consisted of over a hundred families with varying degrees of talent, and no one had attended a business school? Or at least a computer course? Or dared answering a phone? Answering a phone – Subaru snatched up his and hit redial.

“Sumeragi estate. This is Sumeragi Yimura. How may I help you?” came the expected reply identical to the one initiating the previous talk with his grandmother less than fifteen minutes ago.

“Yimura-san? This is Sumeragi Subaru again. Would you like to work for me in Tokyo?”

She gasped. “But I’m not a gifted onmyoji.”

“I don’t need a gifted onmyoji,” he told her bluntly, “I need somebody who’ll work next to a connected phone and dares answering it when it rings. Somebody to handle office communications with the Sakurazuka without exorcising every slip of paper in the building.” He drew a deep breath, calming himself. “Can you do that?”

Suppressed laughter came from the other end of the line. “Yes, Subaru-sama, I can do that.”

“How about computer work?” He asked with faint hope.

“I may be a bit rusty after being confined to the estate office for two years, but I’m confident that it’ll come back fast,” she replied. “I wasn’t best of my class, but I was close enough.”

“When can you be in Tokyo?”

“If I find lodging within my means on short notice, the day after tomorrow.” She hesitated. “How long will you need me?”

Subaru paused. “It’s a permanent position if it works out. If it doesn’t,” he sighed. “Let’s try it for a month. I’ll make sure the house covers your full expenses during the trial period.”

 

Kasumigaseki, Tokyo
Central Government Office Building 6B
Onmyo-Ryo – Sakura Enterprises Inc.
2nd Floor – Office of Sakurazuka Seishiro

 

“This requires your personal jitsuin[7], sir,” Namane informed Seishiro as she presented him a confirmation form for classified information already filled out and stamped with the company seal.

He nodded, scanning the form briefly. “Wait outside, please.”

He waited until the door had closed behind her, before summoning the Sakura. He kept his personal seal along with the original House seal still bearing Empress Suiko’s sigil – with the Tree. If there was one place the Mori wouldn’t be able to get to… He smiled as the small, green silk box manifested on his hand. A blossom-tufted twig ruffled his hair, as he took the seal paste from his desk drawer and placed the required stamp next to the one for Sakura Enterprises. Another twig tugged at the hem of his trousers still glittering with shisa shedding. The twig hardened in warning around his ankle.

…you ought to call me about intruders Dark pink petals rained on his desk.

“Pint-sized ambassadors roaming Subaru-kun’s office hardly qualify as intruders,” Seishiro answered the Tree, while cleaning his seal. “I could trap them in a honey jar without reducing their size.”

…Precedent… the Tree warned in his mind. …always carries a seed of confrontation…

“—and of change,” Seishiro added. “Our operations in the Pine’s domain are still restricted, but we are officially recognized now and have an official link to prevent misunderstandings.” He returned his seal to its box and transferred it back to the Sakura. “It was to be expected that Ryukyu would reply to that.” He rested his hand on the blossoms still touching his cheek. “And the Pine always had dual guardians.”

…like I do now… The Tree released his ankle, a whirl of palest pink removed the petals scattered in anger, then the Sakura was gone. Seishiro breathed a sigh of relief before calling his secretary.

 

“It arrived via courier, sir,” Namane told him when handing him a folder taped closed with tamper-evidence seals a few minutes after she’d received the stamped form, “not via the OMR.”

“And you brought it directly to me,” he inquired.

She sighed. “Yes, sir. I did not want to spend another thirty minutes being purified for handing in a folder addressed directly to you and requiring a clearance they did not have. With regard to that—” She straightened. “May I suggest that Sumeragi-sama employs his own secretary in the foreseeable future? In case of further… conflicts of interest.” She drew a deep breath. “Preferably someone accustomed to scheduling software. The current system of written missives and purified messengers is…”

“Tedious,” Seishiro finished for her. “I’ll speak with him over lunch.”

 

Seishiro broke the seals of the otherwise unmarked, dark-grey manila folder after his secretary had closed the door behind her. The top sheet carried the sigil of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office, followed by a stamp indicating the Special Investigation Department[8]. He sighed. So much for the hope that the customer was going to fail verification, thus solving his problem. He turned the first sheet and scanned the summary. Supposedly induced suicides. A doctor, two prosecutors, a reporter. One suspect, female, otherwise inconclusive descriptions. Now, why did the SID believe that a series of suspicious suicides was a case for him?

 

Sakuya Food Court
Tokyo High and District Court, Joint Government Building
(just past the red brick building of the Ministry of Justice)

 

“Do you eat here often?” Subaru asked at the unexpected sight of the food court at the bottom of the stairs. The entrance was plastered with bright posters of their menu offerings.

Seishiro shrugged. “Occasionally. They have hearty food and a decent coffee within walking distance, and enough customers to make any tampering by the Mori unfeasible.”

Subaru sighed at the latter, then joked, “only decent? What do we have to do for a good coffee?”

“Sneak into the cafeteria of the Metropolitan police department across the street.” Seishiro took one of the dark brown trays provided by the entrance and headed for the counter. “Or get into Namane’s good graces.” He ordered a classic beef bowl with poached egg, a fruit juice, and waited. Subaru decided for a lighter version with more vegetables and green tea.

They didn’t have to wait long for the food to be prepared. The wide room belonging to the food court was filled with rows of white tables, each with six steel chairs upholstered with dusty pink false leather. A window front at the far end looked out onto the shaded walkway around the basement and the ivy-covered incline towards the sidewalk. Seishiro made a beeline to one of the two-seater tables ending the rows there.

“There are two problems we have to address,” Seishiro said quietly, while putting his tray down.

“Only two?” Subaru quipped, taking the seat opposite him, and watched with quiet amusement how Seishiro expertly folded himself into furniture designed for people twenty centimeters smaller than him.

“Two additional ones,” Seishiro specified, finally unwrapping his chopsticks. Subaru grimaced. “I received a case file by courier that would have to go to the OMR, but it contains classified information I had to sign for. I’ve got the necessary clearance, but nobody at the OMR does, so I can’t hand it over. And included classifieds usually mean it’s time critical, so returning it to be filed without the classifieds will cause the type of problem the OMR is supposed to prevent.”

Subaru took a bite of his own food and chewed before replying. “Does that happen often?”

“It’s rare. I got maybe a dozen in the last twenty years.” He ate something before continuing, “It’s currently running through verification, but if it checks out as I expect, I will have to act on it.”

“You wouldn’t be telling me this if you were certain it was a case of yours,” Subaru said quietly, looking down at his dish.

Seishiro shook his head. “No. It’s a case of doubt in my opinion. The prospective client did a lot of footwork already, but they can’t perceive a spiritual source. The consequences… is my field for sure, but the source may be yours.”

“Can you bring me in on it?”

“Once it has cleared verification and is an official case of mine, I have enough leeway to do that.” Seishiro nodded. “But we ought to talk with Ko-kun about how to obtain a clearance for you. We can’t allow classified information to bypass the OMR. My people will certainly use such a loophole extensively, even if only to avoid the repeated purifications.”

“The purification problem ought to be resolved,” Subaru stated quietly. “I sent Tomoaki back to Kyoto.” He put his bowl down and studied the dark ivy leaves moving in a slight breeze at the edge of the sidewalk above. “I will leave his position vacant. Having house representatives with us in Tokyo is… not helpful for now. We can’t trust them to do their jobs, so we have to control everything they do—” He looked down at his empty dish. “—or don’t do anyway.” He sighed. “And my house at least is using that against us.”

“Not only yours.” Seishiro shifted as if something stuck between his shoulder blades. “But you will need a secretary who works with my people and the electronics or you spend your days running office errands.” He snorted. “And I won’t confiscate Namane’s stapler to prevent work-related accidents when her patience runs out.”

 

“Any new developments with the ambassadors?” Seishiro inquired on their way back.

“Aside from them being decorative items on my desk and the fact that elder Tomoaki wasn’t in their good graces, no. But I wonder if we ought to report them.”

“To whom? They’re spirits, so our responsibility.”

“What about the Sakura?”

“—already knows,” Seishiro stated grimly, “and is not amused. Apparently, relations with the Ryukyuan Pine have been strained well before the annexation, so the new developments are met… with a certain amount of reservation.”

“How did the Sakura learn of them anyway?” Subaru wondered aloud. “Did you tell it?”

“They shed on me, remember?” He glanced down at his right trouser hem still sporting a few off-white sparkles.

Subaru chuckled. “What is it with you and foot-fetishizing cats?”

“Don't remind me,” Seishiro grumbled as they crossed the corner onto the parking lot in front of their building. “Looks like you have a visitor.”

Omi, light summer coat over his arm, briefcase in hand, was waiting beside the entrance.

 

Central Government Office Building 6B
Onmyo-Ryo – Sakura Enterprises Inc.
2nd Floor – Office of Sumeragi Subaru

 

“I did not want to cause offense, but the OMR appeared in turmoil when I arrived, so I decided to wait outside, since imposing on the Sakurazuka didn’t seem prudent.” Omi sat gingerly in front of Subaru’s desk, his briefcase on the floor beside his chair. The shisa sitting left and right of the desk pad gave no indication that they were anything but white pottery.

“You could have left a note,” Subaru offered, but Omi shook his head.

“I couldn’t ward the shoreline. The container yard and loading dock are locked down and Tokyu Shipping’s security denied me access to their property.” Omi looked down at his hands.

“And you let it be?”

“No, of course not!” Omi protested, then blushed. He cautiously pushed the right sleeve of his jacket and shirt up, letting Subaru see the set of dark bruises in the form of fingers circling his arm just below an elastic bandage supporting the elbow. “As I said, they have extremely strict security now. I thought it better no to add my spirit to the miasma already wallowing there.”

“I’m sorry I pushed you,” Subaru said quietly. “Please accept my apology for putting you in danger like this, but did you contact their management? Explained the risks?”

“Yes.” Omi nodded, righting his sleeve again. “And I also talked with the police but was told that Tokyu Shipping is within their rights to deny me entry.” He sighed. “I believe they underestimate the devastation of an unchecked demon landfall.”

“It’s almost at the city center.” Subaru shook his head. “We had two demon landfalls there already. We have to ward the waterline.”

“I wrote to the minister of Home Affairs before coming here, requesting official intervention, but was told I couldn’t expect a reply within the week.”

That wouldn’t do, Subaru thought grimly, that wouldn’t do at all. The ocean was Susanoo’s domain, Amaterasu’s most willful sibling, and the second demon had been way stronger than the first. He didn’t want them to face an even bigger one. And he couldn’t stop thinking about the events on the wharf itself. They were missing something; he was sure of it. Something important, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was. And then there was I am the final defense… my death also solves the issue. It wouldn’t even be him facing that demon. Subaru suppressed a shiver. …for my Sakurazukamori to do his duty.

Determinedly, Subaru pushed his chair away from the desk and stood. “Come. It’s time to involve… the other office.”

 

Office of Sakurazuka Seishiro

 

“The security personnel at Tokyu Shipping were very determined not to have me anywhere near their container yard, so the loading dock north of Shibaura anchorage remains unwarded,” Omi finished his report.

“Incidentally also the location of the two demon landfalls.” Seishiro tossed his pen onto the desk pad.

“Exactly.” Subaru confirmed. “I’d like to invoke our business partnership for placing the wards. Waiting for the intervention of the Ministry of Home Affairs may allow yet another demon to appear there.”

“Too bad that demons don’t fit into a manila folder to be filed for the minister’s personal perusal.” Seishiro snorted. “Do you have details about the wharf security?”

“The gates are locked and watched by two guards each, who check all trucks going in and refuse entry to anyone without a company ID,” Omi replied. “Violently if necessary.”

“Patrols?”

“I don’t know—”

“Figures.” Seishiro turned to his screen. A fast series of commands called forth the camera feeds Subaru had seen on their flight back. “Cameras are still active. Let’s see.” He swiftly scanned through the feeds, then clucked his tongue. “Positive for patrols.” He turned his screen for Subaru and Omi to have a clear look as well. “Teams of two with a dog.” He observed the patrol on the screen for a moment. “You wouldn’t have made it to the waterline even if you had gotten through the gate,” he told Omi.

“Can you get us in to place the wards?” Subaru asked.

Seishiro switched off his screen and stood. “Yes.”

 

Minato-ku, Tokyo
Shibaura South Wharf
Expressway No. 1

 

“The body causing the first demon landfall had been at Shibaura anchorage.” Omi, in the backseat of Seishiro’s blue Aristo, was consulting his notebook. “By the time I arrived, its maimed spirit had drifted onto the container yard of Tokyu Shipping north of it.”

“And the security didn’t object then?” Seishiro inquired, slowing down before the ETC toll booth. Traffic was thick today, even on the expressway.

“There hadn’t been any,” Omi told him, “and it was on a Monday as well.”

“Might be that the second demon landfall made them nervous,” Seishiro snorted. “The helicopter was a little hard to miss and Susanoo’s lieutenant made quite a mess, too.”

“I drew on the kekkai from the bridge to contain it,” Subaru added quietly. “If the shore remains unwarded, the next demon will link Susanoo’s domain with the bridge anchorage, threatening one of Tokyo’s major kekkai in the process.”

Seishiro nodded grimly. They passed through the shadow of the bridge and Seishiro parked the car next to the old port director building. The English lettering on its walls was faded. Paint had flaked off in places. A few shrubs and a railing separated the parking lot from the water line and the pier with the tugboats. West of them, the feeder up to the Rainbow Bridge curled out over the water. The bridge itself—

“We’ll go through Shibaura South wharf park.” Seishiro locked the car. “It’s a public park and the trees should provide enough cover to examine the place of death and how it’s linked to the container yard. Then we can go over their fence in the shadow of the anchorage.”

“You know this area surprisingly well,” Omi commented.

Seishiro shrugged. “Last October required a lot of footwork.”

Subaru winced.

 

They followed the paved quay around the small park planted in the shadow of the bridge. The path crossed under the bridge and ran along the container yard on the other side. Dark steel fences with narrow iron tips bent inward protected the foundations of Shibaura anchorage left and right of it. Subaru threw an uneasy glance up at the underside of the roadway with its greenish rust-proof paint, remembering blood-coated concrete, the deck bucking under his knees, suspension cables breaking, and Kamui. Kamui had—

“Left or right pillar?” Seishiro asked, calling Subaru back to the here and now.

“Left,” Omi answered quietly. “Facing the container yard. According to the police report, the body was tied to the fence with her feet above the ground and her arms spread out. The wound in her chest was hand-sized and sakura blossoms stuck to the blood.”

Seishiro nodded. “Romiro’s work. He liked his drama.”

“I’d like to trace the spirit’s path until it merges with that of the first demon. Can you keep us hidden while I do that?” Subaru asked.

Seishiro scanned the area briefly. “From everybody on this side of the yard, yes. I can’t guarantee for spectators on the bridge, and cameras – ours and theirs – will see you.” The lights from the bridge above reflected in his black glasses.

“How much time can you give us?”

“Twenty minutes. From now.”

“Noted.” Subaru took a fuda from his sleeve and placed it on his flat palm. A moment later, his shikigami took flight. Around them, the spirit world was ablaze with the power of the revived Rainbow Bridge kekkai overhead. He didn’t remember it being so bright on Friday. It wouldn’t do any good to let the shiki search for spiritual trails in this glare. He called it back and added an illumination spell to its makeup before sending it out again.

Still, nothing showed up on the direct line from the fence to the spot on the yard where the demons had emerged from the harbor waters, tearing the wards. Where was—? With a brief command, Subaru sent the shiki circling, until a line of diffuse, footprint-shaped spots appeared in his dove’s soft glow. “There it is.” He sent the shiki following the trail that formed a wide arch, through the fence and across the container yard.

“It isn't going towards the water,” Omi observed, surprised. Instead, the spirit trail went directly towards a stack of three Hapag Lloyd containers in dark, muddy orange, before it vanished in the chaos of their recent fight. “Then how did it draw the first demon?”

“It certainly didn’t draw those.” Seishiro beside them said grimly, indicating black shapes milling in the shadows beside the rusty containers. Moryo, this time already on land because there hadn’t been wards at the waterline.

“We have to remove them before closing the wards.” Subaru looked along the steel fence. “Can you make it across the fence?” he asked Omi.

“What about the patrol?” Omi indicated two guards with white safety helmets and a big German shepherd dog coming towards them along the fence. The black batons in their belts were as visible as the reflective stripes on their orange vests. Subaru wouldn’t be surprised to find them armed with handguns as well.

“They won’t see us on their side of the fence any more than they see us here,” Seishiro said calmly beside them.

“And the dog?”

“Just let them get past before going over.”

 

Tokyu Shipping container yard
12 minutes later

 

Subaru’s ofuda struck the last remaining moryo across its face. Razor-sharp teeth bared, black eyes bulging, it prepared to leap—

—and exploded in a blinding flare, rendering the whole container yard and even the harbor beyond in stark black and white. They all blinked after the flare subsided, trying to regain their vision.

“The maboroshi didn’t hide that,” Seishiro said dryly, pressing a hand to his temple.

“I’m sorry.” Subaru bowed reflexively. “It accumulated more spiritual power than I anticipated.”

Vicious barking interrupted him. “Stop right there!” The guards came running across the yard, batons drawn, dog released. “Attack!”

Seishiro reacted instantly. Five sharp syllable and a wind sickle whirled away from him.

“Don’t—” Subaru reached for him.

The wind sickle took out the dog’s throat and made it overturn in a spray of blood, crimson against its black pelt. The fuda in Seishiro’s hand glowed up with the power taken from the spilled blood. The first guard opened his mouth to yell when the glowing fuda slammed against his forehead, stopping him mid-step, mid-word. The second guard, baton raised to strike, was already too close for a fuda. Subaru grabbed his wrist, used the guard’s own momentum to deflect the blow, while Seishiro’s hand closed over the man’s face, laying him down flat on his back on the concrete.

“Are they dead?” Omi asked, shaken.

“Not for the next twenty minutes,” Seishiro stated coldly. “Afterwards, we’ll see.”

“We place the wards immediately,” Subaru turned for the waterline.

“First, I want to know what’s in those containers.” Seishiro strode past them, taking a new black fuda from his chest pocket. “Nothing they are allowed to ship this close to the city center warrants this kind of reception!”

“Be careful,” Subaru warned. “Normal freight doesn’t draw a spirit and—” The black fuda slammed against the lock of the first container and Subaru barely managed to close a pentacle shield around them before the spiritual explosion and the stench of putrefying corpses engulfed them. Plain silver crosses glowed eerily green on the throats of five bloated female bodies, illuminating the spirit feeding off them. A composite ghost.

Subaru heard Omi intone an incantation behind them, adding what he could to the shield. Seishiro was a pulsing heat within it. “Catholic charms. Active,” he said. “Trafficked from the Philippines, I think.”

Subaru nodded, slowly moving between Seishiro and the vengeful ghost. The spiritual power of five devout believers was a force not to be underestimated, no matter the religion involved. He repeated his incantation thrice to strengthen the pentacle shield. The spirit whipped tendrils of itself across the shield, testing his strength, while hovering protectively over its bodies.

:::Stay away. The likes of you have done enough damage to us!::: The cross at its throat glowed white, illuminating the rust flaked container and the bodies. :::Haven’t we suffered enough? Letting us go without water for days in this filthy confinement and when we called for help you cut our throats as if we were animals in a slaughter house!::: The spirit flared again. :::We want—:::

“You want revenge,” Seishiro said calmly behind Subaru.

:::And isn’t that just?:::

“Forgiveness is at the core of your faith,” Subaru said softly. “I can’t begin to fathom your suffering in life, but the time of death is not the moment to violate—”

:::We will not be berated by infidels!:::

Subaru stumbled back under the assault of raw power lashing over the shield. Seishiro was working on another fuda; Subaru couldn’t hear the incantation through the howling of the spirit, but the fragment of his magic within Seishiro suddenly flared in agony. A red mist appeared over the dead dog behind the spirit, thickening and spreading. Eerie green lights appeared in the dog’s eyes. Its legs twitched. A dog god. Seishiro was calling a dog god! Unleashed on spiritually saturated ground this close to two demon trails—

“No! Don’t—” Subaru staggered. The composite ghost was answering his brief distraction with another vicious attack.

“Joseph, renowned offspring of David, head of the holy family[9]—” The ghost was suddenly silent. Subaru risked a glance over his shoulder; Omi was kneeling with a small ivory cross between his clasped hands. “Joseph most strong, mirror of patience, solace of the wretched, hope of the sick, patron of the dying, I beg you to help these lost sheep find their way back to the holy flock.”

The agony in Subaru’s marks receded as Seishiro released the dog’s spirit and laid his hand on his shoulder, quietly moving him sideways, giving Omi free view of the ghost. But Omi didn’t look up; eyes downcast, head bent over clasped hands, he continued with increasing fervor. “Joseph most just, I beg you to intercede in Heaven for these lost souls to be judged for their deeds in life alone.”

The spirit wavered, became lighter as it whirled between the barrier and its bodies.

“Joseph most strong, terror of demons, I beg you—” Omi raised his head sharply, fixating on the spirit directly. “—restore the holy order to these unworthy grounds!”

The spirit shrieked. Light was sucked back into the glowing crosses around the corpses’ necks, tearing the spirit into its components which flickered and dimmed and—

“Amen.” Omi crossed himself. The spirit was gone. “May you find the peace in Heaven that you couldn’t find in life and death on earth,” he said tiredly.

The stench of decaying bodies assaulted them anew when Subaru dropped the shield. “I didn’t know you were Christian,” he said quietly to Omi, who gave him a weak smile.

“I’m probably not. My father’s family is from rural Nagasaki. He had me baptized and taught as a child, but I inherited too much of my mother’s gift.” He drew a deep breath and prepared to gather himself up. “I never expected to need the liturgy in an exorcism.”

“You did well.” Subaru offered his hand to pull him up.

“Thank you.” Omi brushed the dirt off his pants, avoiding eye-contact. “We should place the wards and leave here before the guards wake up. I don’t want to see them killed. I—”

Something metallic clicked behind them. They both turned in alarm, but it was only Seishiro, who’d opened a cell phone and was dialing one-handed without taking his eyes from the containers in front of them. “This is Sakurazuka. Contact the MPD, Organized Crime Control. There are at least three containers of small firearms on the grounds of Tokyu Shipping down in Shibaura.” A brief pause, then: “Anonymous. Thank you.” He ended the call.

Omi frowned. “Firearms?”

“Nothing gets them to move faster.” Seishiro removed the battery before putting the cellphone back into his pocket. “Human trafficking is not nearly as high on their priority list.”

“Don’t tell me you care,” Subaru commented, wiping his forehead. Flies buzzed around the containers, but the spirit was gone.

“About unnecessary work imported from overseas?” Seishiro snorted. “Of course.” He glanced at Subaru. “Better get those wards set up now. This place is going to swarm with cops soon and I’d like to be gone by then.”

 

Shibaura South Wharf Park
16 minutes later

 

“Omi-san,” Subaru said quietly after they were safely inside the park. The young, carefully supported trees were tall enough to hide Tokyu Shipping container yard from sight. “Please go ahead to the car. I’d like to talk with Seishiro in private.”

“Of course.” With a short, formal bow, Omi continued down the path towards the port director building.

Seishiro headed down to the steel railing that stopped park visitors from falling into the murky harbor water and rested his arms on the top bar. “Anything specific you’d like to discuss?” he asked when Subaru joined him.

“The dog god you were about to raise would be a good starting point,” Subaru said, looking out across the water to Odaiba. Odaiba, linked to Shibaura by one of the strongest kekkai of Tokyo. He ran his hand over his forehead, brushing his hair out of his face only to have the sea breeze blow it back into his eyes. “The risk of a sakanagi enhanced by the proximity of the spiritually disturbed sea—”

“There were two ready recipients for the sakanagi,” Seishiro shrugged. “More than enough.”

“More deaths next to an angry composite ghost?” Subaru arched a brow. “Wasn’t it powerful enough for your taste already?”

“I don’t think the murdered women would have been keen on mingling with their tormentors.”

“Or they were like you – opportunists who’d take any available power, no matter its source.” Subaru shook his head, still looking out across the water, but without really seeing it. “They were probably killed when the police examined the body at the bridge.”

Seishiro nodded, fetching a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. “The traffickers couldn’t risk their freight being noticed.”

“Which means they died just when there was a chance to escape.”

“And became demon bait.” Seishiro, unperturbed, lit a cigarette and had a first drag. “We missed the significance of the moryo.” He didn’t offer to Subaru. “They were convenient recipients of the sakanagi, but Susanoo’s lieutenant wouldn’t have brought them.”

“And they feed on corpses, not ghosts.” Subaru sighed. “The first demon was drawn by the mutilated spirit from Romiro’s banning field, but the second one…” He shook his head. “It wasn’t following the smaller demon; it was drawn to the composite ghost.” He closed his eyes and exhaled deeply. “The traffickers put all of Tokyo in danger.” He looked up, studied Seishiro’s silhouette. “Are you going to hunt them down?”

“Why?” Seishiro glanced over at him. “Metropolitan Police is in on the traffickers and penitentiary is no environment for composite ghosts.” He shrugged. “No case of mine.”

 

to be continued in

Business as Usual
part.2 – Case Studies

 

[1] Children’s Day. May 5. National holiday to celebrate the happiness of children.

[2] Amatsukami are the heavenly gods, i.e., kami residing in the Plain of High Heaven (Takamanohara), together with those that were born in Takamanohara but later descended to the land of Japan.

[3] Moryo are water spirits, often described as three-year-old children with red or black skin, red eyes, and long ears and hair. They feed on human corpses, esp. on rotting innards.

[4] Wakkanai, Japan's northernmost city. On clear days, you can see Russia's Sakhalin peninsula from the coast.
Wakkanai sounds like wakannai, which happens to mean "I don't understand / I don't know" in colloquial Japanese (or wakaranai in standard Japanese). You can thus expect to get some ribbing if you answer questions like "Where are you?" with "Wakkanai"!

[5] Tachibana orange (citrus tachibana). Japanese cultivar of the mandarin orange, inedible, grown for its fragrance and blossoms. It represents birthplace and home. Tachibana are often planted together with a sakura, so that - from the perspective of the viewer (for example the emperor at the palace garden) - the sakura stands on the left (yang), and the tachibana orange tree on the right (yin) protecting the viewer with loyalty on the left and home on the right. [Google Books][Wikipedia]

[6] Haraegushi. A wooden, hexagonal wand decorated with many zig-zagging paper streamers. It is waved left and right during purification rituals in Shinto.

[7] Jitsuin (実印) is an officially registered seal needed to conduct business and other important or legally binding events.

[8] Public prosecutors in the District Public Prosecutors Offices carry out investigations and trials of criminal cases. Most cases are referred to prosecutors by the police and other organizations such as customs, but some serious and complex cases are investigated by public prosecutors on their own. In Tokyo, serious, high-profile cases are often handled by the Special Investigation Department of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office.

[9] Omi's spell is an excerpt of the Roman Catholic "Prayer to Saint Joseph", who is the patron of the universal church, unborn children, fathers, immigrants, workers, against doubt and hesitation, and for a happy death, etc.