Hiromasa strolled along one of the palace corridors, the trailing hems of his robes whispering over the floorboards. Tucked into his sleeve was an invitation to dine with Fujiwara no Kinto, one of his cousins who had recently returned from the governorship of Suruga province, a place so far distant from Heian-Kyo that Hiromasa's head spun at the mere thought of such a place.
Kinto's letter had made mention of odd events that had befallen him on the journey home. A gentlewoman in their retinue had succumbed to what priests at a local temple described as a dream demon. According to the letter, the lady had simply fallen asleep and did not wake again. Though the circumstances were odd and the household was reduced, Hiromasa's cousin begged him to spare the time for a visit, and added that he would be grateful for an introduction to Abe no Seimei.
As he pondered on both the request and what would make a suitable 'welcome home' gift, Hiromasa noticed the sunlight striking glimmers from something half hidden in the shadows of a pillar. Curious, he went closer and crouched to pick up the object, then carried it to the veranda to examine it in full daylight.
It was a keepsake, a lock of hair about as long as his forefinger, tied with braided gold thread. The hair was pure jet black, soft and shiny. Hiromasa turned it in the sun, admiring the glint and sheen. The hair had been cut quite recently, if he was any judge, and came from a young woman. He could discern no rough texture or dye that would mark the hair as coming from an older woman, and the strands still held vitality.
Hiromasa looked in all directions before he lifted the keepsake to his nose and sniffed. Only a faint trace of scent lingered, so faint he couldn't recognise the blend, let alone identify which of the palace women had created it.
He leaned against the pillar, twisting the lock of hair between his thumb and forefinger as he considered this little mystery. All the palace ladies were inordinately proud of their hair, so long it caressed the floor as they moved, so dense and lustrous it took at least three maidservants to wash and dress it every tenth day, if the auspices were favourable. A keepsake of this discreet size wouldn't show from amongst the shining mass of hair of the noble ladies and their gentlewomen, not even if the woman's lover had cut the lock from near the lady's face.
That's what he would do, Hiromasa decided. If he wanted a keepsake from his lover, he'd want a lock of hair that touched his skin, that brushed his cheek or throat. Of course, Hiromasa would never dream of asking Seimei for such a thing. Seimei would probably laugh at him.
Still, Hiromasa thought the keepsake was charming and romantic. He wondered if the lady had dropped it, or if her lover had been the careless one. Perhaps their affair had come to an end and the lover had cruelly tossed the keepsake aside. Or perhaps the gentleman was even now searching through his clothes for this precious object, distraught at its loss.
Hiromasa felt certain the keepsake would be missed. He turned, thinking to replace the lock of hair where he'd found it, when he had a better idea. If he could work out whose hair it was, he could return the keepsake to the lady. His curiosity would be satisfied, and she and her lover would no doubt be grateful.
Pleased with his plan, Hiromasa carried the lock of hair to his rooms to begin his study. He seated himself at his writing desk, prepared ink, and took several sheets of plain paper from his sleeve, stuffing the letter from his cousin beneath a cushion to answer later.
First he made a list of all the women he knew in the palace. The list was extensive, and he chewed the wooden end of the brush, conscious that he'd forgotten some of the ladies. Then he cross-referenced the first list with a second, of all the lords and gentlemen who were known to be engaged in affairs. The third list was more tentative and based upon rumour rather than fact.
Hiromasa decided the keepsake was a token from a forbidden affair. It seemed to make the most sense, for if the lover had easy access to his lady, then why would he seek a lock of her hair? Unless, Hiromasa thought with a frown, the gentleman had a particular fondness for a woman's tresses.
He noted the thought and set it aside for further contemplation before returning to his third list. The name at the top was that of Lady Umetsubo, a haughty and elegant creature and imperial favourite—and also, according to gossip, the mistress of a penniless but exceedingly handsome gentleman of the lower seventh rank in the Ministry of Ceremonial.
Placing the lock of hair upon his desk beside the list, Hiromasa concentrated upon it as if he could discern the name of the lady from the soft strands. Of course, if Seimei were here, he could no doubt cast a spell and reveal the name within moments, but Seimei wasn't here—and besides, Hiromasa was proud of his detective skills and determined to untangle this charming puzzle.
He stared at the keepsake for so long, the room darkened as night fell. Blinking, Hiromasa called a servant to light the candles and bring the evening rice. He continued annotating his list, fetching more paper from a box and grinding fresh ink. He ate his simple meal still seated at his desk, and when he retired to bed, he took the lock of hair with him.
Hiromasa slipped the keepsake beneath his pillow-roll. Perhaps he would dream of the lady.
The next morning, he awoke and went directly to his desk to continue with his list. The lock of hair curled warm and snug in his palm, and he held onto it throughout the day. At noon he recalled that he hadn't yet eaten the morning rice, but when a servant brought him his midday meal, Hiromasa found he wasn't very hungry. The desire to discover the identity of the lady consumed him, and his thoughts moved from Lady Umetsubo to Lady Chikuzen.
She was an older woman, but still handsome and with her hair still black and gleaming. It was said that Lady Chikuzen preferred younger men and was involved in a scandalous affair with one of the imperial princes, a mere boy half her age. Hiromasa nodded as he drew a line through Lady Umetsubo's name. Yes, the keepsake surely belonged to Lady Chikuzen. The young prince was the silly, fanciful type to sigh after a lock of hair from his paramour.
With a start, Hiromasa realised he hadn't moved from his room all day. Conscious of his cramped muscles, he tucked the lock of hair into his sleeve, then collected up his lists and notes and placed them under a book of sutras. He stood and went to the door. Outside, the corridor was deserted and shadows lengthened. Not a soul stirred. The palace lay in blanketing silence, without even the smallest light to brighten the darkness.
How had the time passed so quickly? Hiromasa turned back to his chambers and slid the door shut. He shivered, an odd prickle of disquiet creeping over his skin. His stomach rumbled, and he realised he hadn't eaten all day. He hadn't seen a single servant, and no one had called upon him. This was beyond unusual, as was the fact that Hiromasa had somehow managed to dress himself that morning. He couldn't remember putting on his clothes, and yet he was perfectly attired.
Confused, he disrobed, placed the lock of hair beneath his pillow-roll, and went to sleep.
The following morning found him seated at his desk, his notes spread out in front of him. Hiromasa couldn't remember waking up. He couldn't remember eating, or dressing, or attending to more basic human needs. The palace remained in silence, and whenever he wasn't looking at something directly, the corners of his vision seemed to slide and drift like autumn mist.
Hiromasa spent some time staring around his room, his fists clenched as he tried to understand what was happening to him. He clapped his hands and shouted, but no one came. When he went to the veranda and opened the blinds to look at the courtyard, he saw nothing but grey, a world as insubstantial as clouds.
The only reality seemed to be inside his room. Hiromasa knew he should be concerned by the way things had become so strange, but whenever he tried to focus on his worry, the feeling slipped away. The only thing that held his full attention was the lock of hair and his lists.
Taking the keepsake from his sleeve, he examined the gold braid that tied it, hoping for further clues to the lady's identity. When that revealed nothing new, he teased out the individual strands of hair. The daylight dimmed around him, and Hiromasa realised with a start that night had come upon him once more.
He should rise from his desk and go to his sleeping mat, but Hiromasa remained seated. He stared at the lock of hair upon a fresh sheet of paper and wondered what to do. Perhaps he should abandon his quest and burn the keepsake. Then it wouldn't matter whose hair it was and it wouldn't matter that he'd failed in his self-appointed task.
The room grew dark, and still Hiromasa sat at his desk. His eyelids drooped and his head became heavy. The urge to lie down and sleep dragged at him, and he struggled to stay awake. The creeping grey curled around the room, misting the edges of the screens, the blinds, his sleeping curtains. It wended towards him, smoothing out the floorboards and his cushions, rolling across his desk and obliterating his notes.
Hiromasa heard the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears. He swayed as sleep beckoned and pulled him down into the grey, and then he heard it.
A noise, soft but unmistakable. The sound of the door pushed aside, the sound of footsteps across the floor. Hiromasa tried to bring himself out of his doze. No one had been to see him in days. Now he had a visitor, he should be hospitable. He should be awake.
The voice was familiar. He blinked, lifted heavy hands to rub at his eyes. Through the grey he saw a brilliant white shape. His gaze swam and he forced himself to focus. The white shape took on recognisable form. "Seimei," Hiromasa croaked, and reached out to him.
Seimei's hunting costume seemed too bright, the glare of white silk hurting Hiromasa's eyes. The purple and ice-blue shaded robes he wore beneath were also painful to look upon, the colours so vivid they were like a dream. Hiromasa tried to turn away from his friend, but Seimei took his hands and held onto him, his eyes dark and brilliant and showing too much emotion.
Hiromasa felt the grey mist recede as Seimei—too bright, too colourful, too real to be real—came closer. "Hiromasa," Seimei said, his voice echoing weirdly around the room as it dissolved, "wake up."
Hiromasa stared at him, then noticed the lock of hair and its gold braid upon what remained of his desk. He let go of Seimei's hands and picked up the keepsake, then he fell forward as sleep took him.
The next day, Hiromasa woke with his head in Seimei's lap. He came to his senses slowly, his eyes flickering open, and then he registered his unusual pillow and looked up at Seimei, who gazed back at him with his usual calm equanimity.
"Good morning," Seimei said.
Hiromasa beamed at him from his undignified position. "Seimei! I must sleep in your lap again. I feel quite refreshed."
Seimei looked amused. He lifted a hand, shaking back the wide sleeve of his hunting costume, and between his fingers he held a lock of hair tied with gold braid.
Recognition stirred him, and Hiromasa made a grab for it. "That's mine! I found it—I wanted..."
"You wanted to discover the identity of the lady who made such a keepsake of her hair," Seimei interrupted. "Did you find her?"
"No." Hiromasa sat up and adjusted his crumpled clothing. His unbound hair felt lank and in need of a wash, and he didn't smell too good, either. He yawned and stretched, feeling his cramped muscles wake and sting in protest. "I never found her," he said, then pressed a hand to his stomach when it rumbled loudly. "Forgive me, Seimei. I seem to be hungry."
Seimei twisted the lock of hair, screwing it up into a tight knot. "You've been asleep for three days."
"Three days?" Hiromasa stared at him then shuddered.
"Your servants tried to wake you." From within his sleeve, Seimei took a narrow strip of white paper and tied it around the knot of hair. "When nothing could rouse you, they sent for me."
Hiromasa watched as Seimei passed his free hand over the lock of hair. A moment later, the keepsake burst into flame and disintegrated, leaving the sharp stink of burnt hair hanging in the room.
"A dream demon," Seimei said. He brushed his fingers clean then folded his hands in his lap. "They often leave snares for unwary humans, usually something pretty or mysterious. The longer you stay trapped in the dream, the longer the demon can feed upon you. Three days is quite long enough."
Hiromasa remembered his cousin's letter and the demon that had attacked the gentlewoman. He pulled his cloak around him and shivered. "A dream demon? Seimei, are you serious?"
"Very." Seimei gave him an indulgent look. "Next time, Hiromasa, please consider before you pick up something pretty. It might cost more than you're willing to pay."