Nine days after they left Yatsuhashi, Seimei fell from the saddle of his horse. The road was hard and the fall was unexpected, for Seimei's mind had unanchored itself and drifted for the last few miles of the Tokaido. He lay crumpled on the ground, aware in a disassociated sense of the sight he must present, his hunting costume a splash of white clouding the graduated shades of blue and purple under-robes, the dark blue hakama puffed by the breeze, and his lacquered hat lying some distance away.
The road was dusty and rutted and smelled of nothing. Everything had a scent, or so he thought, and it troubled Seimei that the road should have no smell, not even the scent of earth. He tried to sit up, but felt too weak. He turned his head and looked up at his post-horse, which gazed back at him. He couldn't even summon enough magic to speak to it. With a sigh, Seimei settled onto the ground and waited.
Moments later, Hiromasa came racing back, shouting in his usual excitable tone. This time, his voice was tinged with worry and panic. His horse clopped along behind him, snorting at being pulled by its reins. Seimei heard a jingle and flutter as Hiromasa let go of his horse, and then came the soft punch of silks as Hiromasa dropped to his knees.
"Seimei! What happened? Are you hurt?"
"I fell off my horse." It seemed an unnecessary thing to say, but sometimes with Hiromasa it was better to state the obvious. "I seem to be well enough."
Hiromasa leaned over him. "You don't seem to be well at all. Look at me."
Seimei blinked and focused his gaze. "If you insist on riding ahead of me..."
"Don't blame me for this. I said we should have brought my ox-cart."
"It would have been foolish. Besides—"
"I know. It was my idea to take horses." Hiromasa stood and went to retrieve Seimei's hat. When he came back, he took Seimei's right hand and rolled back the long sleeves covering the deep, black scratches.
"You're sick," Hiromasa said, sounding more knowledgeable about these things than a nobleman should be. "It was the shadow fox. I told you it looked poisonous. We shouldn't have left Roka's inn."
Seimei tried to pull his hand free. "His excessive and effusive thanks were becoming tiresome."
"We saved his only son. Well, you saved his only son. And now you're sick. When will you listen to me, Seimei! Sensible men stay at home. They don't go charging around the countryside in search of adventure."
"May I remind you once more..."
"The journey was my idea. Yes, I know." Hiromasa frowned, but his expression was worried. He touched Seimei's cheek, brushed away a strand of hair that had loosened from his topknot. "I will never forgive myself if something happens to you."
"It already did." Summoning his energy, Seimei managed to smile. "Don't fuss so, Hiromasa. It's only a shadow fox's scratch. I will be quite all right."
"So you've been saying for half the length of the Tokaido." Though he'd tried for a jocular tone, Hiromasa's anxiety and self-remorse were audible.
Seimei closed his eyes. "You exaggerate."
"Very well, I exaggerate—but that's only because you drive me to it." Hiromasa slid an arm around Seimei's shoulders and helped him sit up. "Lean against me. I'm going to put you on my horse with me. There must be an inn somewhere up ahead."
Seimei allowed Hiromasa to lift him up onto the horse's saddle and managed to hang on while Hiromasa tied their animals together. Weariness spun around him. He wanted to sleep. His sleeves slipped back and he stared at the scratches, parallel stripes black and ragged. The skin around the wounds was ash-grey, but it didn't hurt. It had stopped hurting six days ago. He knew this should worry him, but he was too tired to care.
Hiromasa climbed up behind him. Seimei dozed for a while, slipping into the place beyond dreams. Usually he felt safe there, in control of the forces that moved unseen by human eyes through the layers of life, but this time he felt nothing. He stood in blackness and couldn't even dance his thoughts into order. He just stood and waited, and when the horse finally stopped and Hiromasa murmured in his ear, Seimei jolted back to wakefulness with a shudder of fear.
It was evening. Lights glowed at the window of an inn. Hiromasa set gentle hands on Seimei's waist and swung him down. Seimei tottered a few steps and was glad of Hiromasa's grip on his arm. The entrance hall of the inn blurred into streamers of light and crawling shadows. Seimei turned his face against Hiromasa's shoulder and listened to the babble of conversation—meaningless, impossible—pour over him. He made himself move, forced his feet to follow Hiromasa up the stairs and into a room. A bedroll lay in one corner, and Seimei lay down upon it with grateful relief.
Hiromasa placed a hand on his forehead. "Rest, Seimei."
"What is this place?"
"An inn. We're near Sunomata."
"Ah." Seimei closed his eyes. "You are a very good man."
"And you are impossible."
Seimei woke with a start. Night spread around him, and he knew it was the hour of the Ox, the time of greatest darkness. He sat up and looked into the shadows, feeling them retreat from him. On the other side of the room, he heard Hiromasa's breathing, deep and even in sleep. Nothing else stirred, and slowly, Seimei relaxed.
He summoned a flame, letting it float in the air. It shed no more light than a firefly, and he shielded its glow with a hand in case even this sliver of illumination should disturb Hiromasa. When his friend remained asleep, Seimei took his hand away and sat for a while in the tiny pool of light. He listened, and heard beyond the confines of the room the sounds of sleep from elsewhere in the inn. Outside, a river flowed, the water singing as it rolled stones along its bed. In the forest nearby, a night bird called, a badger lumbered from its burrow, and a fox stirred the grasses. He felt the shape of the clouds across the face of the moon and tasted the wind blowing across the plains, carrying with it the scent of three rivers.
Seimei pulled himself back from his outward prowling at the sound of scratching behind the door to their room. He gestured the flame in that direction and glimpsed a flash of colour as something was pushed beneath the door. Orange, red, gold, black. Seimei disentangled himself from the blanketing layers of his robes and crawled across the floor to kneel over the object. Before he touched it, he listened, holding his breath—but no sound came from outside. No footsteps walking away, no rustling of silks. Just silence, as heavy as the night.
He let out his breath and examined the object in front of him: Two maple leaves stitched together with a dead reed. He picked it up. The reed, still damp from the riverbank, left a track of wet cold on his hands. Separating the leaves, Seimei revealed the message written inside.
He stared at it, absorbing what was said and what was left unsaid, then he took it back to his sleeping mat and placed the message beneath his pillow roll. He lay awake for a long time, and only allowed himself to sleep when dawn touched the sky.
The next message arrived in the morning. Hiromasa brought it to him along with the handful of fresh arrowroot Seimei had requested.
"Did you send the innkeeper to pick the herb?" Seimei enquired as he brushed soil from the roots. He knelt in front of a brazier, upon which sat a bronze bowl filled with water almost at a boil.
"I picked it myself." Hiromasa beamed, looking as proud as if he'd won the archery contest at the Iris Festival.
Seimei smiled. "Thank you." He plucked the leaves from the arrowroot, drew them between his fingernails to bruise them, then scattered the leaves into the water. From his saddlebags he took a pouch of dried herbs and dropped two pinches into the bowl.
Hiromasa wrinkled his nose. "It smells strange. What is it?"
"Tea." Seimei agitated the bowl, waiting for the water to boil. "It's medicinal. It should halt the shadow fox's poison."
"You look pale. As if you haven't slept properly." Hiromasa stood and watched the bubbles form on the surface of the water. "Aren't you going to open the letter?"
Seimei didn't even glance at the message. He'd set it beside him on the floor. Another pair of maple leaves, this time fastened with a yellow reed. "I don't need to read it. I know what it says."
Hiromasa exhaled. "The innkeeper said it was just delivered. How can you know what it says?"
"I know." Seimei took a small porcelain cup and dipped it into the boiling tea. It was too hot, so he blew on it, but still the first sip scalded his tongue, and then he felt the heat of the infused herbs warm him, restoring some of his lost energy.
"Why must you be so mysterious!" Hiromasa paced around the room, the sweep of his cloak disturbing Seimei's pillow roll. The first message slipped out and fluttered across the floor. Hiromasa trapped it beneath his foot and stared at it. "Another letter." He sounded startled. "Who is writing to you?"
Seimei licked at the rim of the cup. "No one."
"Letters cannot write themselves, cannot deliver themselves!"
"They can." Steam from the tea clouded his vision. Seimei blinked through it, looking up at Hiromasa. "Do you want me to demonstrate?"
"Seimei." Hiromasa knelt, weariness in his expression. "I don't doubt you can cause the sun to turn into the moon and streams to run backwards, but a letter cannot write itself. There must always be a cause—a motive on the part of the one who writes the letter. Even if a demon wrote a letter, there would be some reason for it to do so."
"A demon did not write this letter."
"And that one?" Hiromasa demanded, pointing to the first message.
Seimei smiled. "It is not from a demon."
"Then who is it from?"
Folding his hands around the cup, Seimei resumed drinking his tea. He nodded to the bowl set over the brazier. "If you would be so kind..."
Hiromasa sighed noisily and got to his feet. "I will fetch more water. And I will order a meal. If you're strong enough to be writing correspondence, you're strong enough to eat."
"Thank you." Seimei paused, then added, "I have not replied yet. There is no correspondence."
"So it is a one-sided dialogue?" A flicker of exasperation showed on Hiromasa's face, along with some other emotion—relief, perhaps, or satisfaction. His tone level, he continued, "That seems unfair."
Seimei laughed. "You say that without knowing who writes to me."
Hiromasa gave him a look. "I asked. You didn't reply." He swung on his heel and left the room, his tread heavy on the stairs as if he felt burdened.
He stayed away for the rest of the morning. Seimei missed him and began to regret his oblique answers, but justified them with the thought that it was better for Hiromasa not to know the truth. At midday, a maid brought rice and a selection of vegetables. Seimei ate the food without tasting it. He asked where Hiromasa had gone, and the maid said the noble lord was sitting downstairs, eating alone.
Seimei thanked her. He pulled the brazier towards the window and spent the afternoon watching the long, slow movement of the river.
The sky changed colour at the approach of evening. Hiromasa returned to the room with a third letter. He dropped the message into Seimei's lap with resignation. "Another. If you do not wish for the contact, you should write and tell them so."
Thoughtful, Seimei held up the leaf. "What do you see, Hiromasa?"
"A letter." Hiromasa folded his arms and leaned against the window frame, looking out at the close of day. "Pale orange Korean paper edged with red and tied with long stems of dried grass."
Seimei slid a fingernail beneath the stitches of grass and broke the stems. He opened the leaf and held it out. "Now what do you see?"
Hiromasa glanced at it, reluctance warring with curiosity. "I see a poem in a very refined reed script, and a message beneath it."
"Ah." Seimei set the leaves on his knee and smoothed them out. For a moment he could feel the magic—the rustle of the dried leaves became the whisper of his fingers over the paper, and the splotches of muddy ink became lines of text—and Seimei sighed in admiration for something so simple done so elegantly.
"Who is it from?" Hiromasa's voice held a note of pleading. "Seimei, it was only by chance that we stopped here. Or was it? Did you arrange this?"
Seimei glanced up in surprise. "I assure you, this is a coincidence."
Hiromasa seemed unconvinced. "You have not been out of this room since we came here, so how...?" He stopped himself. "You told me it wasn't from a demon."
"It's not." Seimei closed the leaves together and set the message aside. "There are things other than demons, Hiromasa."
"And you won't tell me what manner of 'thing' it is?"
Seimei gave him a small smile. "You don't need to know."
Anger shone in Hiromasa's eyes. He shoved away from the window, his abrupt movements softened by the fluttering path of his silks. "Fine. Don't tell me. Keep your secrets."
"No." Hiromasa's voice trembled, and he shook himself, his anger suddenly directed inwards as if at this display of weakness. He paced across the room and turned to face Seimei, gaze sharp and stabbing. "Never mind that I've been worried sick about you these past few days. Never mind that I demean myself grubbing about in the dirt like a commoner, looking for weeds for your tea. Never mind that I care."
Seimei bowed his head. "I'm sorry."
"I'm going out." Hiromasa swung around again and headed for the door.
"Where are you going?"
For a moment, Hiromasa paused, but he didn't look back at Seimei. "Not that it matters to you, but I'm going to dinner with Lord Masakado and his family."
Seimei frowned. "Lord Masakado?"
"A new acquaintance." Now Hiromasa shot a glance at Seimei, half a challenge and half an appeal for understanding. "I met him by chance this morning when I was out gathering arrowroot. A most distinguished gentleman, polite and charming."
Everything he was not, Seimei supposed. "His estate is nearby, I take it."
"A little inside the woods. I saw it earlier. A pleasing residence."
Seimei kept his expression blank. "So you will dine there this evening."
"Lord Masakado has a daughter." Hiromasa shifted on his feet, looking uncomfortable and embarrassed. "He told me she's a beauty and very accomplished at singing and poetry."
"Ah." Seimei took his fan from his waist-sash and spread it open, counting the ribs fixed beneath the gold-speckled paper. "Do not let me keep you, then."
"Seimei, I would..." Hiromasa stopped himself again. "Never mind." He pushed open the door and left the room.
"Enjoy your evening," Seimei called after him.
Hiromasa made no reply. Seimei heard his footsteps on the stairs, then listened to him walk across the entrance hall and out to the courtyard. He waited until he heard the sound of hooves on the road, and then with a sigh he clicked his fingers and dimmed the heat of the coals in the brazier. He'd wanted this, wanted to engineer a situation where Hiromasa would be out of the way, but something felt wrong here. Seimei didn't know if it was jealousy or loneliness or just the numb deadness in his arm that made him feel so restless and melancholy.
He shrugged into the sleeves of his hunting costume and fastened the braided collar. He stood and tucked the train of the hunting costume into the waist-sash, then picked up the three letters, opening all of them one more time. Each maple leaf held a paw print and nothing else. Seimei stared at each message in turn, then he closed the leaves and slipped them into one wide sleeve.
These were not letters. They were a summons. Finally, Seimei was ready to answer them.
Dusk had fallen and was greying towards night by the time Seimei stood on the riverbank. The innkeeper had tried to stop him from going out on his own, offering the protection of one of the inn's servants and then, when Seimei refused, the innkeeper suggested he accompanied Seimei himself.
"I will be back before Lord Hiromasa returns," Seimei said to soothe the agitated man. "He paid you extra to watch out for me, didn't he?"
The innkeeper bowed. "The noble lord said you were ill, sir. He was worried about leaving you alone."
"But he needed to get away from me," Seimei murmured. To the innkeeper he said, "I will be back shortly. I'm not going far."
He went as far as the river and spent some time watching the eddying sway of the surface. Insects flew around him, but Seimei ignored them, and they left him alone. At length he moved, walking upstream to where a creek joined the river. There he turned and followed the creek into the woods as the darkness gathered.
He whispered a spell and the firefly light floated a short distance ahead of him. Brambles snagged at his robes. His right arm felt heavy from his hand almost all the way to his shoulder. Seimei gritted his teeth and tried not to think about how far the shadow fox's poison had spread. He'd been too hasty and arrogant in Yatsuhashi, and this was his punishment. He should have known better.
The firefly light changed colour. It altered direction, and when Seimei tried to call it back, the glow moved on without him. He followed it into a small clearing, where the light expanded and shone as brightly as the full moon. Seimei stood beneath it, studying his crossed shadows over the grass, and then he looked up as the low-lying branches of the surrounding pine trees parted.
A man stepped out into the clearing. He wore robes of red and orange, gold and black, and his long dark hair was frosted silver at the temples. His hair flowed loose, tucked behind his ears to hang straight down his back, and Seimei noticed that the tip of the man's left ear was missing. The man's hands were hidden within the width of his sleeves, and magic shimmered from him like moonlight on the surface of a lake.
Seimei bowed deeply in deference not only to age but also to a power much greater than his own. "Grandfather," he said, and the word dropped into the silence like the shattering of a fine piece of porcelain.
"Child." Shokuzu no Akinobu spoke in a voice unused to human speech. It sounded dark and hoarse, the words carefully measured. "You have grown."
"It's been a long time."
Akinobu smiled, his teeth very sharp and not at all human. "I have watched you all through the seasons."
"I never saw you." Seimei tried to suppress the flash of hurt. So many times in his life he'd needed someone to understand him, so many times when he'd thought he was alone—and yet Akinobu had been there just beyond his reach. The idea of it was insupportable, but Seimei knew he couldn't be angry. His grandfather was not human, had no concept of humanity. Even though it was pointless to rebuke Akinobu, Seimei said, "You could have given me a sign. Sent me a message. Let me know somehow."
"What then? I am a fox. I don't belong in your capital."
Seimei took a step closer. "I don't belong either. My estate lies on the edge of the city. You would be welcome there. You would—"
Akinobu held up a hand to silence him. "Don't be fanciful. I am too old and set in my ways to pay courtesy calls." He smiled again, as if to soften the harshness of his response. "As for messages, I send them only when necessary. I'm glad you answered."
"If I hadn't, you'd have come to me at the inn. I couldn't allow that."
"You don't want your Lord Hiromasa to meet me." It wasn't a question. Akinobu gave him a curious look. "Why not?"
Now that was a question, and one Seimei didn't want to answer. It made him feel vulnerable, and he disliked showing such a weakness. But not to answer was even more of a weakness, and so Seimei said, "He knows the rumour about my parentage. Perhaps he even half-believes it. He has seen me cast spells and perform exorcisms, and he's despatched demons himself—but there is doubt in him, and his doubt makes him precious to me. To him, I am just a man—eccentric, no doubt, and a powerful Yin Yang Master with appalling court manners and a mysterious past—but he doesn't truly believe I'm half fox. I am careful to preserve the ambiguity of the truth. I don't want him to think less of me." Seimei paused. "I don't want him to think I'm a demon."
Akinobu tilted his head, his gaze quickening with interest. "You love him."
"Then you should be more careful." His tone changed, became brisk, and Akinobu nodded towards Seimei's right hand. "I sent the messages because I knew you were hurt. I could feel it as soon as you crossed into Mino province. Let me see."
Seimei rolled back his sleeve to the elbow and held out his arm. Under the firefly light, his skin looked pallid and corpse-like, the scratches a thick, inky black.
Akinobu ventured closer, put his head down, and sniffed at the wounds. He wrinkled his nose and hissed. "This is bad. A shadow fox, yes? Vile creatures." He looked up, eyes glinting green and gold. "Are you afraid?"
Seimei held his gaze. "I never admit to fear."
"Ah, child, how very human you are sometimes! For an animal, fear is instructive. Humans seem to think it's a matter of pride. Foolish, really." Akinobu flicked out his sleeves, his paws becoming hands, and he curled his fingers around Seimei's wrist. He ran the pads of his fingers over the damaged skin, muttering to himself as he traced the path of the poison up Seimei's arm.
Seimei held still. "Can you help me?"
Akinobu sighed and stepped away, pulling Seimei's sleeve back into place. "Yes, I can cure you, though you were a silly kit to leave it so long before you sought aid. But before the healing can begin, first you must do something for me, for a fox cannot grant a wish unless a favour has been done or down payment has been made."
He'd been expecting the demand. Seimei nodded. "Tell me what you want."
For a moment, Akinobu's gaze dropped its focus. He seemed lost in thought, yet his body was tense, as if he could hear things far distant, or as if he was retrieving an ancient memory. Then he blinked and stood a little straighter. "I have troublesome neighbours."
"Neighbours?" Seimei couldn't keep the surprise from his voice. "You live here permanently? In Mino?"
Akinobu waved a hand airily. "I have a den here. One of many. I like to travel. After almost eight hundred years, staying in one place becomes an unbearable notion."
"And you have problems with your neighbours."
"Ghosts." Akinobu said the word with disdain and gave an elegant, contrived shudder. "Of all the things in this world, ghosts are the most irritating. Their understanding is so limited they repeat their actions over and over again. Their screams for vengeance are tiresome. The screams of their victims are equally as annoying. Human screams reach a pitch that hurts my hearing."
Seimei almost smiled at the aggrieved expression on his grandfather's face. "Angry ghosts, then. You wish me to exorcise them?"
"Send them on their way." Akinobu made a shooing motion. "Exorcism might be best, as then they'll stop preying on travellers through these parts."
An earlier conversation tugged at the back of his mind. Seimei chased the stray thought, feeling uneasy. He narrowed his eyes. "How many ghosts?"
"Three." Akinobu met Seimei's gaze and held it. "A lord, his wife, and their daughter. The lord went insane and killed his family, then himself. Their bodies lie unburied behind the walls of their estate."
The sense of unease blossomed into anxiety. "What was the lord's name?"
"Masakado. His estate lies yonder through the trees."
Seimei drew in a sharp breath, his heart thumping in sudden fear. Hiromasa had mentioned Masakado's name. Hiromasa was within the estate now, eating dinner with ghosts. Seimei said, "Lord Masakado's daughter was a beauty."
"Yes, she was." Akinobu raised his eyebrows. "Not any more, of course. It's most unpleasant to look upon rotting human flesh torn by scavengers."
"I must go." Seimei made a hasty bow and hurried in the direction his grandfather had indicated. He stopped at the edge of the clearing, hesitated, then turned back, conscious of the one question he still hadn't asked. He forced himself to ask it, knowing that the answer would hurt him no matter what. "How is Mother?"
Akinobu paused. "She is more fox than human these days."
Seimei gave a tight nod then pushed his way through the trees, his breath trapped in his throat and a splintering of pain in his chest.
He left the firefly light with his grandfather. He didn't need it, not when anger and fear drove him through the woods towards the Masakado estate. Seimei dropped the veneer of humanity he'd spent so long cultivating and let slip his animal side. He could see in the dark, could hear the voices of a thousand woodland creatures, could smell the dank earth and the moss and mulch. His blood was up, and in his haste to reach Hiromasa he started a male pheasant from its dirt-scratched hiding place. It flurried and uttered a single grating alarm call before Seimei grabbed it.
He pinioned the bird by its wings and waited for it to stop struggling. Easier to break its neck, but he needed it alive. Seimei stood and listened, hearing rustles and whimpers, sorting through the sounds until he knew with certainty where he'd find another pheasant. He moved with easy stealth, unerring as he hunted down the female bird. The hen lurked beneath a pile of brambles, and he snatched at her one-handed, catching the bird by her feet and dragging her out. The hen pecked at him, vicious and frantic, and a moment later a young pheasant dashed from the brambles.
Seimei took hold of the adult birds with one hand and tracked the panic-stricken juvenile. "Forgive me," he murmured as he swept up the young bird. "My sins are grievous enough already. But I must do this."
The pheasants hung still in his grasp as he strode through the woods. Their acceptance of their fate made him calm, and slowly he pulled himself back from the wildness that ran hot and angry inside him. By the time he reached the Masakado house, Seimei had withdrawn his fox-self and wore his shell of disinterested humanity. His concern for Hiromasa still beat within him, a drumming more rapid than his heartbeat, but he forced it back, pushing aside all emotion so he could deal with the ghosts.
Vengeful spirits followed patterns but they were also unpredictable. Ghosts undertook the same routines as they'd done in life, but when a human crossed their path, the spirits could feed from his energy and this made them dangerous. Seimei had encountered ghosts too uncouth to wait before they harvested human life-force. He'd also faced ghosts who seemed to toy with their victims as a cat plays with a mouse. For Hiromasa's sake, he hoped the Masakado spirits took their time in revealing their true nature.
The gates were closed, but one word from Seimei and they opened to reveal the ruin of a once fine house. The roof had collapsed in all but one of the quarters, and saplings breached the walls and poked up through shattered verandas and galleries. Seimei walked across the cracked ground of the courtyard, picked his way up rotten wooden steps, and entered the main hall. As he went inside, Seimei hummed a spell to give just the shadow of glamour. He could see what Hiromasa saw, the vision superimposed over the reality, as if looking through a veil of gauze.
He gestured with his free hand and a pair of doors slid open. Beyond was an elegant room hung with painted scrolls and silken draperies. A succession of low lacquered tables held green-glazed dishes of food. Hiromasa sat with a wine-cup in his hand, beaming foolishly as he gazed at the daughter of the house. She was beautiful, Seimei saw in the vision, a girl with lustrous hair and milk-white skin, her calligraphy quick and pretty as she wrote out a poem for the guest. Lord Masakado and his wife looked on with indulgent smiles, but their expressions dissolved as they noticed him.
Hiromasa rose to his feet, his confusion evident. "Seimei, are you well? What are you doing here?"
Ignoring him, Seimei stopped beside one of the tables and picked up a chopstick. A whisper of magic, and it became a knife. He held up the pheasants and stared at the ghosts, one by one. Their lines faded in and out, their corporeal bodies wisping like smoke, and their features began to slide into decay.
"Seimei!" Hiromasa sounded horrified. "What's happening?"
"They're ghosts," Seimei said. "They were going to kill you."
"Ghosts? You mean... ghosts?" A note of bewildered hurt crept into Hiromasa's voice. "But they seemed so pleasant! How can they be ghosts?"
"Things are not always what they seem." Seimei took a step closer to the ghosts. He raised the knife to the silent birds. "I give you three for three. Three lives for your vengeance; three lives to fulfil you. No longer will you prey on humans. No longer will you haunt this place. Three for three, and so be gone!"
He drew the blade across the pheasants' necks. Bright blood spurted, and the ghosts screeched and flung themselves at the offerings. Seimei dropped the birds to the floor and stepped back, watching as the ghosts crawled over the bodies. Feathers flew and flesh tore; blood spattered the hems of his hunting costume. The ghosts were mindless, devouring the pheasants in a frenzy of need, and as they crammed the raw meat into their mouths, they began to fade. They became wizened corpses, dried skin, bleached bones—and then they crumbled into dust, and when Seimei waved his sleeves, the dust blew across the floor and the hall stood empty and rotting.
Seimei opened his hand. A trickle of dust ran from his palm. He wiped it on his hunting costume. He exhaled slowly, feeling the thud of weariness. His right arm hurt now, a stinging that ran from the shadow fox's scratches up to his elbow. He winced at the pain and tottered on his feet, stopping himself from falling with an effort of will.
"They really were ghosts." Hiromasa came to stand beside him, his face ashen. "I didn't know. I thought... But they were ghosts. How did you know?"
Seimei said nothing. He rubbed at his arm, closing his eyes on the wash of pain. He preferred the numbness to this growing agony, and beneath his breath he hissed a curse. His grandfather had not warned him about how much the healing process would hurt, if indeed that was what was happening to him.
"Seimei, are you—" Hiromasa reached out to him, eyes full of concern.
"Go back to the inn." Seimei backed away, his voice rasping as a fresh spasm of pain racked him. "Leave now."
Hiromasa's eyes sparked with stubborn annoyance. "I'm not leaving you. Seimei! You're hurt—your arm..."
"Go back. Go back, Hiromasa!"
Drawing himself up to his full height, Hiromasa gave an imperious shake of his head. "And what will you do? You can barely stand up!"
Seimei hissed again and staggered away from him across the broken floor.
Hiromasa followed. "Seimei! What are you hiding?"
Cold sweat ran down Seimei's face. Nausea rose in his throat and darkness dimmed his sight. He took deep breaths, struggling to fight off the pain. He couldn't stay here. He needed to find his grandfather. "Go back," he told Hiromasa, "and tomorrow I will be well again and we can continue our journey as if nothing ever happened."
"Nothing...?" Hiromasa caught at one trailing sleeve and pulled Seimei around. "That's not good enough. Where are you going? Who wrote you those letters?"
Seimei shook his head, too tired to be angry, too weak from pain to be guarded any more. "These letters?" He pulled them from inside his sleeve and threw them at Hiromasa. "They are not letters. Look at them. Read them."
Hiromasa looked at the maple leaves on the floor. "But—but these are..."
"Leaves," Seimei said on a sigh. "Autumn leaves tied with grass. There's no poetry, no pretty reed script. Just paw prints."
As he bent to pick them up, Hiromasa's hands trembled. "From a fox?"
"From my grandfather." Seimei held his jaw so tight it hurt to speak. "My grandfather will heal the injury caused by the shadow fox. In return for his help, he asked me to banish the ghosts from this estate."
Hiromasa stared at him. "I thought you came here to save me."
Seimei held his gaze in silence. There were so many things he could say, and yet he said nothing. He couldn't, not without making this worse. Too late, he realised that his grandfather had sent him here to rescue Hiromasa. Seimei recalled Akinobu's hesitation, the moment where he seemed to over-consider the favour he wanted. Seimei hadn't questioned his grandfather's request. Akinobu was more than powerful enough to eliminate a family of angry ghosts, and yet he'd let them stay in the woods, and he'd allowed Hiromasa to wander into their midst, and he'd sent Seimei in to save him...
"Damn you, Grandfather." Seimei put a hand to his head, feeling dizziness spin him round. "Why must you interfere!" He pulled away, not knowing what was uppermost in his mind—anger or confusion or pain. "Go back to the inn, Hiromasa. Wait for me."
Hiromasa drew in a breath then exhaled shakily, almost on a sob. When Seimei looked at him, he saw fear in Hiromasa's eyes. Fear of me, Seimei thought, and felt miserable anger outweigh his pain.
He shook his head. He turned and left the hall without looking back. He called up a new firefly light and sent it ahead of him into the night, and he walked out of the ruinous estate and into the dark woods to where his grandfather waited.