Hotaru: Fireflies
by Nene Adams © 2001 - All rights reserved

PROLOGUE - Firefly Secrets
 

Amatsu kaze                     If the divine winds
Kumo no kayoiji               Would blow the cloudy corridors closed,

Fuki toji yo                        I would be able to

Otome no sugata               Keep these pretty girls

Shibashi todomenu.           For a little while.

                 -----Abbot Henjo

Kanatzuki, the Month of No Gods (October)
Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Courtyard of the Green Willow
9 p.m., the second Hour of the Dog

"To you, Cricket! Hai!"

Two little girls, swathed in colorful, wadded silk robes, were playing hanetsuki in the garden, batting a paper ball back and forth with unfolded fans. According to custom, the girls' heads had been shaved from forehead to crown in a wide circular tonsure, the remainder of their hair pulled into a rolled butterfly twist at the back, ornamented with gold lacquer combs.

Despite the darkness of the late hour, the children could see well enough to play. Big stone lanterns squatted in various strategic locations, providing some illumination. The remainder of the soft, golden light came from paper lanterns hung from branches of the dwarf willow trees that gave this secluded garden its name.

The older of the two, a thin nine-year-old named Cricket, swatted the descending ball and mocked her sister with a shrill, "Hi-ya, Moth! Can't beat me so easy!" Despite the muffling layers of clothing they wore, both girls were able to run about and play with the unthinking abandon of the young.

Moth made a face and stuck out her tongue, helplessly giggling. This cost her a point; absorbed in mocking her older sister, she missed the ball and it bounced on the grass, eventually rolling into a nearby bamboo thicket.

"Ma!" exclaimed Moth in annoyance, not caring that her nurse disapproved of such common language. At seven, she considered herself old enough to not have to listen to Nurse Miya all the time, even if the woman was her "little mother." She didn't drink milk anymore, anyway, and thought Miya was very vulgar to keep offering those bulging, purple-nippled, milk swollen breasts to her at every meal. Still, what could one expect of a peasant? As Father said, hoping for refinement from the lowborn was like expecting a pig to recite sutras.

It had been a stroke of good luck when Mother had decided that slow, dependable Miya was needed at her party to look after their honorable newborn brother. This decision provided a rare opportunity for the two sisters to play without supervision for a while and made them feel very grown up... although not adult enough to scorn a fun, vigorous game of hanetsuki.

"I'll get it!" Moth cried. Snapping her fan shut and with a look of serious concentration on her pumpkin-round face, she hiked up the skirts of her kimonos and waded into the dense thicket, soon disappearing from sight.

Cricket sighed. "Hayaku, Moth! Hurry up! You know Honorable Nurse will be thinking of us soon and we'll have to go to bed."

Suddenly, she heard the dry bamboo rattling fiercely, a sound that reminded her of fortune-telling sticks rolling back and forth in a celadon vase. At the same time, Cricket felt a cold shiver traveling up her spine, making the hair on her arms and neck prickle in alarm. There was no wind; the air was perfectly still and calm.

Maybe it was an animal...

Cautiously, Cricket said softly, "Moth? Is that you?"

A strange, choked murmur came from the thicket, almost like the deep, belly rumbling growl of a beast.

"Moth? Stop trying to fool me, little sister. I'm not afraid."

The only answer was a breathy moan, almost a whimper. Thin bamboo canes whipped together in a frenzy, broad leaves lashing themselves to pieces with such fury that the air was full of shredded splinters and glittering dust motes. The clicking rattle was like desert-dried bones tumbled together in a cask; the sound grew louder and louder until it was almost deafening, splitting the night like a rolling drumbeat of thunder.

Cricket was growing more frightened by the second. Half of her wanted to run for help; the other half was mesmerized by the display, feet rooted to the ground as she waited in breathless anticipation for the suspense to end. Her heart fluttered in her chest like a caged bird. "Moth?" she whispered.

Just as suddenly as it had started, the bamboo became still again, quiet and motionless, but the silence was ominous and oppressive. This was more frightening than its fierce activity moments ago.

"Moth?"

Cricket tentatively put out a hand and touched the plants with her fingertips, holding her breath.

Nothing happened.

Feeling bolder now, as well as sheepish for her earlier fright, Cricket squared her shoulder and pushed into the bamboo thicket, laughing under her breath. "That was a good joke, Moth. Just wait until tonight. I'll get you back for this, you'll see."

Dazzling balls of fiery light burst from the thicket, one of them narrowly missing Cricket's nose. She screamed, stumbling backwards, and fell sprawling on the grass. Looking up in a terror induced daze, she watched the flickering, flame-engulfed balls whirl about in a stately dance, reminding her of nothing so much as a swarm of summer fireflies.

Cricket's throat worked. Her mouth opened but nothing came out.

The fireballs zipped back and forth in complicated patterns, leaving trails of ghostly pale light that wavered in the air for a heartbeat before fading. They bounced erratically, bumping into one another and changing direction, droplets of sizzling flame melting away from the orbs like candlewax, dripping onto the scorched garden earth and barely missing the terrified girl.

Without any warning, just as suddenly as they had appeared, the flaming spheres were gone, vanishing silently and without a trace, save for some patches of smoldering grass and wisps of smoke that smelled strongly of cheap, acrid ansoku-ko incense.

Cricket whimpered, unconsciously gouging up clots of earth with her spasming fingers.

Finally, two tears slipped over her round cheeks, squeezed from wide and staring eyes.

Sucking in a deep breath, Cricket began to scream. "Oni-bi! Oni-bi!"

Demon fires... 

The girl continued to scream long after adults came running to see what was wrong; long after her weeping mother smothered her in caresses and comforting murmurs; long after her brave and clench-jawed father waded into the silent bamboo thicket... 

And returned with a blood-stained paper ball balanced on his unfolded fan. 

 

CHAPTER ONE -  Clouded Thoughts

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Court of Golden Koi
9 p.m., the Hour of the Dog

"I will not marry him and that is final!"

"Of course, my lady," soothed Izumi, her full moon face perfectly tranquil. "We can always move back to our old quarters; it will be no trouble at all. Here; have another cup of cha."

Kimiko took the cup absently. "Uncle-san thinks he can force me into marriage with that horrible wife slayer, eh? Ha! I'm only nineteen and he's at least forty! It is a disgrace! And I don't like this apartment, anyway. Does uncle-san think he can buy my obedience with finer quarters, like a child who must be tempted with sweets before a dose of nasty medicine? Ha! I would rather kiss Lord Emma's black buttocks than marry Suwa Denbe! I would rather pillow with the Great Stone Monkey! Saneyoshi-sama makes a grave mistake if he thinks I will be traded against my will to that grasping turtle-head like... like... as if I were a cud-swallowing buffalo cow! Giri is giri and clan business is clan business, but I don't have to like it! And I'm not going to!"

"Of course not, my lady," Izumi murmured. "Would you care for some sembei?"

Kimiko wrinkled her nose and waved away the offered dish of rice crackers. "This is not to be borne! I will shave my head and join the lowest temple in Wa before I will pillow with that red-nosed son of a baboon!"

Ayumi cleared her throat with a polite, "Ano!" and held out her cup for more tea. The samurai knelt in her usual position to Kimiko's left. "I think that is not entirely wise, my lady," she murmured after taking a sip. "Unless, of course, you plan to follow the example of  Faceless Fusako."

This gave Kimiko pause. Slowly, she turned her head to glare directly at Ayumi, who had assumed a carefully blank expression. Lady Fusako had been a celebrated beauty in her day; rather than marry, she'd wished to retire from the world while still young and spend the remainder of her long years in service to the Merciful Amida. Rejected by the priests, Fusako had taken a red-hot poker to her incomparable face, mutilating herself in devotion to Buddha, and was accepted as a wandering nun for her sacrifice.

Kimiko felt no such compelling vocation. She'd only been airing idle threats; Kimiko was young, pretty, intelligent and in no way wanted to lock herself away from the world in a bare cell, counting beads and droning sutras until she was a withered old crone. Complaining loudly, at great length and with as much dramatic theater as possible made her feel slightly better about the dreadful situation and she'd expected her retainer to know that. "Have you a more practical suggestion to make?" she asked Ayumi coolly.

"Gomen nasai, my lady," the samurai replied without a trace of a smile on her lips, although her black eyes may have twinkled, "I meant no offense."

Kimiko turned away with a sniff.

Izumi glared at Ayumi, who shrugged and set her cup down.

While the three women sat closely together, their thoughts were worlds apart, even if they centered around a single subject.

Kimiko was fretting about the impending marriage with Suwa Denbe, a universally acknowledged madman who was older, steeped in vice and probably riddled with debt. Her uncle, the Kanpuko Fujiwara Saneyoshi, had arranged the marriage without her knowledge or consent. Under the law she was free to refuse, but such an act would be considered unfilial and dishonorable to the memory of the clan's ancestors. She would be stripped of her ancestral lands; the wealth she'd inherited from her father would be confiscated; she would have absolutely nothing, not even a good reputation, to sustain her.

Trapped between the boar's tusks and the devil's blade, Kimiko had sought the advice of the Dowager Empress, Lady Hisame. That interview had been most unsatisfactory; the Dowager hadn't had the least interest in helping Kimiko out of her situation. Instead, the hateful woman had carefully mashed soft fruit with her black pearl teeth, cackled with ill-timed glee, and offered marriage-bed advice that would have made a back-passage whore of the fifth rank blush with shame. There would clearly be no escape from this route.

The trouble was that no one, with a few exceptions, felt the marriage was at all inappropriate. Most girls her age were already wed, with families on the way and discreet love affairs on the side. Kimiko wouldn't be Denbe-san's principal wife, after all - only his second. First wives were more mature than their husbands, capable of running a complicated household. Kimiko's position would be below Lady Ryoko, Denbe-san's principal wife, but above any concubines he might take later. It was considered a good, sensible match for a nineteen-year old who was too precocious for her age and station.

Still... the marriage ceremony had not yet taken place. Indeed, the traditional "three visits" had not been scheduled, either. Kimiko shuddered. Merciful Kwannon, have pity on your daughter! she prayed silently but fervently. Make Denbe-san's jade scepter shrivel like a mushroom in the sun! Make my yoni close as tightly as a miser's chest of gold! Let my breath turn as sour and rancid as spoiled rice! Anything, O Merciful One, anything would be better than spending three nights with him in my bed and my body! It isn't fair! Oh, oh, oh! I will do my duty but it is not fair!

Her love was reserved for Ayumi; night and day she burned for the samurai's embrace. She was absolutely positive that the gods had tangled their unmei together; it was only a matter of time before their sleeves touched and they began to tread the path of common fate as lovers and more. Why, oh why, did her hateful uncle have to try and spoil it all? And why, oh why, wasn't Ayumi doing something about it? The samurai's apparent indifference to Kimiko's trouble made the situation all the more heart-rending.

Kimiko stared into her teacup and swallowed against a rush of hot tears.

The maid Izumi eyed her silent mistress and sighed. Many girls feared marriage and her lady was no exception. It will be good for her, Izumi thought. Buddha forgive me, but my lady can be as flighty as a flock of young sparrows. A husband will steady her, make her more sober, and cleanse her blood of that samurai's heat. True, Ayumi-san has behaved in an honorable fashion, as is proper... even so, it is one thing for my lady to seek pleasure with another woman, and another entirely for her to pine and waste her young soul's measure of love on such a person.

Izumi did not feel as if she were behaving disloyally. Giri was giri, after all, even if she did look upon Kimiko as her own child. If there had been any sane objection to Lord Denbe's suit, she would have been the first to leap to her lady's defense. His other second wives all had bad karma, the maid thought. Nothing to do with Denbe-sama. He is a perfect husband; is old enough to have patience, old enough to spoil her without losing face, and old enough to put up with her tempers without losing his. All around, an excellent match.

It was not a question of supporting her lady's wants; in Izumi's mind, the issue was to fulfill Kimiko's needs, even against her own wishes. Having decided that Kimiko would be better off marrying Lord Denbe than continuing in her present virginal (and therefore unsafe) state, Izumi sat back on her heels, offered a plate of steamed buns, and wisely kept her own counsel. No sense disrupting the harmony of the household with arguments and tears. She knew she was right and that was enough... for now.

In anticipation of Kimiko's ultimate acceptance of her fate, Izumi had already scheduled Lord Denbe's "three visits." The bridegroom had to sample the charms of his intended bride before the wedding could take place.

It was a most sensible arrangement, satisfactory all around... except, perhaps, for Kimiko.

Ah, my lady will come to her senses eventually, the maid thought. It is really for the best. Court gossip is nearly always untrue and I am sure he is a fine gentleman.

Meanwhile, Ayumi rolled her eyes and fought the urge to beat Kimiko with the flat of her katana in the vain hope of pounding some sense into the girl. Didn't her lady understand that she only had to give the word and Lord Denbe's head would roll in the dust? Of course, such an action would result in the samurai's immediate death as well, but that was of little importance. She weeps, rails against the gods, and burns enough incense to suffocate an entire village instead of simply ordering the man's death, Ayumi thought sourly. Baka!

Izumi thrust a plate of buns under her nose and Ayumi took one, biting into the soft white dough and barely tasting the spicy vegetable filling.

Ayumi was feeling a little put out by Kimiko's attitude, which was why she'd taken to teasing the girl instead of offering open sympathy. It was insulting that her lady had not yet comprehended that Ayumi would never allow anyone - not even a lawful husband - to offer her the slightest harm. The moment Denbe-sama raised the smallest finger towards Kimiko with evil intent, he would find himself lacking both hand and head.

And then there was the matter of Kimiko's infatuation with her, which had not abated and showed no signs of doing so. It was all Ayumi could do to keep their relationship a proper one between mistress and servant without giving offense. Kimiko flirted shamelessly, took every opportunity to prance around in the flimsiest garments, used any excuse to touch and caress Ayumi's body until the samurai's liver flopped over and she began to sweat. Their sleeves had not yet touched but it was only a matter of time before they were exchanging pillows and chasing the Clouds and Rain.

Ayumi wanted to put off that time as much as possible. Not that she didn't find Kimiko attractive - far from it! - but she didn't want to disappoint the girl. I cannot return her love and it would not be fair. Although I am quite fond of her. Very fond, in fact. Very, very fond...

Baka! Apparently, I suffer from a state of extreme fondness, the samurai fumed.

I dare not tell her now; my lady is the type to think shinju is an oh, so romantic option to marriage with Denbe-sama. Double lover's suicide - stupid! I will die for her but I will not let her throw her life away on a scarred, flat-nosed, flat-footed samurai like me. She must marry Denbe-sama out of duty - I will not add to her regret by professing my affection. Besides, Ayumi thought, it is good for my lady's karma to be forbidden something she wants from time to time. It is good for my self discipline to be denied an anticipated pleasure. No doubt we will both be rewarded with better fortune in another life. Then again... maybe not.

She risked a glance up to Heaven.

Which one of you honorable monkey-san gods is pissing on my head these days?

As usual, there was no reply. Not surprising, considering the gods were meeting in Izumo Shrine in Shimane province this month to decide the fate of all people and the world for the coming year, but it would have been nice to get some sign from the pantheon. A rain of chamberpots, perhaps.

Ayumi glared at the bun in her hand and took another savage bite.

Kimiko rose, smoothing down the blue-and-white cotton yukata she wore. She was tired of sitting there with her own thoughts and desperate for a distraction. "I think we will attend Lady Ryoko's moon viewing party after all. Due to all this dull silence, I suddenly find meeting my betrothed husband's first wife a pleasant alternative to being bored to death. Well, what are you waiting for with open mouths? A swarm of flies? Help me get dressed at once! And Ayumi-san, please wear the outfit that matches my new robes. Hayaku!"

Izumi got up as quickly as dignity allowed and scurried off to the clothes trunks, wondering what demon had possessed her lady. Then again, perhaps this was the first step towards acceptance of the inevitable and all those sutras she'd paid the priests to chant were doing some good in Heaven, after all.

Kimiko lifted her chin proudly and stared down at Ayumi. "Do you have anything to say about it?" she asked defiantly.

"Gomen nasai, my lady," Ayumi answered, strangling a chuckle into a smothered cough; she would have slit her belly open before hurting Kimiko's feelings but that didn't mean she couldn't apply some gentle sarcasm. "This miserable worm has absolutely nothing to say at all."

From across the room, Izumi suddenly sneezed.

Kimiko looked at Ayumi suspiciously. Everyone knew that a sneeze meant someone was telling a lie.

The samurai smiled and shrugged, face a perfect picture of  innocence.

The girl couldn't help but have the feeling that some god, somewhere, was laughing at her.


CHAPTER TWO - White Sand, Red Blood

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Courtyard of the Green Willow
11 p.m., the second Hour of the Boar

Lady Ryoko had a face like a razor-edged hatchet. It was as though at birth, the midwife had grasped the infant girl by her soft facial features and yanked outward. Ryoko's narrow slitted eyes were set so close to her long, needle-sharp nose that she could practically stare up her own nostrils, and her chin protruded so far that it was a wonder she could eat without dribbling like a toothless ape. Her forehead was too low and her hairline grew down almost to her shaved eyebrow ridges. Rather than use the thick, leaded  make-up that was fashionable at Court, she merely blotted her complexion with a layer of rice powder. Some of the powder invariably wore away, leaving unattractive blotches that gave the impression of dirty ground peeping through cracks in an otherwise flawless snowdrift.

Despite being unattractive, Ryoko had a reputation for serenity, smiling calmness and quiet acceptance of fate; she was graciousness itself and never lost her temper, even with the clumsiest servant. The gods had not seen fit to allow any of the children of her womb to survive - she'd had five miscarriages since her marriage to Denbe-san - but she was raising the daughters of her husband's deceased second wives as well as taking on the responsibility for his illegitimate son by a courtesan. Lady Ryoko never complained and if she suffered at all, she hid it well. 

Which made it all the more shocking when Kimiko and Ayumi arrived at the Court of the Green Willow and beheld the chaos that reigned in those once quiet rooms. 

The place was in an uproar with servants scurrying mindlessly about, nobles whispering behind their sleeves, maids weeping copiously and beseeching Heaven, priests waving burning incense and droning prayers, and the Dowager Empress herself trying to comfort a dry-eyed and red-nosed Ryoko. Lord Denbe stood in the middle of the central space pulling violently on the little wisp of beard that decorated his chin; other than this nervous gesture, he appeared relatively calm and collected. 

Kimiko shuffled on her knees towards the dais at one end of the room, where the Dowager knelt on a plump cushion, futilely offering cups of warm sake to Lady Ryoko, who stared dully and ignored the bustle around her. 

"Gomen nasai, Your Highness. This miserable worm has only just arrived." Kimiko bowed deeply to Lady Hisame, folding her hands flat on the tatami mats and knocking her forehead three times against the floor as protocol demanded. Nobody forgot to kowtow to Old Lady Spider twice. "Is there anything I can do to help?" 

The Dowager Empress, Lady Hisame, whose name meant "frowning woman," peered at the bowing girl, then beyond her to the stone-faced female samurai who attended her. "It is not an auspicious evening, Kimiko-chan. Ryoko-san has lost a child; her youngest daughter called Moth." 

Kimiko sucked in a breath. "Is there illness in the palace? I had not heard the plague bells." 

"Iye! Of course we are not troubled by sickness demons, child." The Dowager Empress had an unpleasant habit of clicking her false pearl teeth in and out of her mouth in times of great stress; she did so now with gross liquid noises, oblivious to the disagreeable spectacle. 

Glancing down at Lady Ryoko, whose head was pillowed in her lap, the Dowager slurped her teeth back into place and commanded sharply, "Chigau! Don't be ridiculous. Plague, indeed! Don't wish ill luck on your betters, child." 

Kimiko gasped softly and trembled, stomach knotting in sudden panic; behind her, Ayumi unconsciously grasped the hilt of her sword, face screwing up into a fearsome grimace. 

"Gomen nasai, Your Highness. Please forgive me!" Kimiko bowed profoundly, face ashen. 

The Dowager spat over the edge of the dais, a gesture meant to avert evil and one which betrayed her peasant class roots. Around them, some of the nobles ceased their whispered conversations and drew away from Kimiko, pulling the trains of their robes around their feet as if to avoid guilt by association with the condemned. 

Lady Hisame was terrified that her young son, the Emperor, would die before she had a chance to rule the Floating World from behind his throne. To ensure his continued health and well-being, she spent a fortune on amulets, charms, prayers, potions, incense, blessings and special sutras; her cunning and icy ruthlessness kept the scheming nobles and daimyos in line. She was the most powerful woman at court and didn't scruple to wield every ounce of her political might like an ox driver's whip. 

She was also a deeply superstitious woman. The Dowager was convinced that once something bad was spoken aloud, the sentiment was likely to come true, and there was only one way to avert manufactured misfortune. The entire palace, from servants to the highest nobles, guarded their tongues with care; a chance remark in Lady Hisame's presence or in the presence of her spies was likely to result in a sudden, unwanted familiarity with red-hot brands and burning pincers. 

Noting the girl's frightened reaction with satisfaction, the Dowager decided to overlook Kimiko's exclamation. Although she would never admit it, even to herself, Ayumi's fiercely scowling countenance and the way the samurai fingered her sword hilt significantly contributed to Hisame's decision to be merciful... this time. 

The Dowager allowed her lips to curve slightly upward in as much of a smile as she permitted herself and said in a pleasant tone, "It's all right, I am not angry with you, child." 

One of her hands, lily white and criss-crossed with snaky veins, absently caressed Lady Ryoko's hair. "You are still young and foolish, Kimiko-chan; with age will come wisdom." She sharpened her gaze; her next words were sheathed in menace. "One hopes that you will live to see such age and such wisdom. It will not come to pass if you continue to allow your mouth free reign without consulting your mind." 

Kimiko let out the breath she'd been holding and Ayumi relaxed a trifle. During the dramatic pause, Ayumi had been noting various exits and mentally mapping a route through the palace, calculating how many of the palace bushi and ga-domen she'd have to kill in order to get her mistress out alive. 

Conversation resumed with a buzz. 

Lady Ryoko stirred. Her narrow eyes darted from side to side and she asked in a slurred whisper, "Where are my children?" 

The Dowager continued to stroke her hair. "Cricket and Little Brother are with their nurse. They are safe, I assure you. Do you think you could drink a little sake? It will help warm you." 

"No." Ryoko struggled weakly to sit up. "Where is Moth? I had a dream, a terrible dream..." 

The Dowager's eyes flashed at Kimiko in clear warning. "The captain of the ga-domen and his men are still searching. They will find her, never fear." 

Ryoko's lips were cracked, her face paler than a spring moon. "I must find her. The dream... I saw a dog. A dog!" Her voice rose into a high-pitched screech. "Monster! What have you done to my daughter!" 

Bystanders sucked air between their teeth and smiled widely in embarrassment at Ryoko's lack of emotional control. Some laughed, burning inwardly at the shame of a noble lady who had lost so much face by her breakdown. It would have been better if Ryoko had endured stoically in public and wept in private, which was the proper way of dealing with such things in the Floating World; as it was, Ryoko lost a great deal of respect from people who would never allow her to forget this lapse. 

As the Dowager tried to calm the hysterical woman, Kimiko wondered what interest Old Lady Spider could take in the wife of a relatively minor lord. After a moment's consideration, she had the answer. In the days before her concubinage to the old Emperor, Lady Hisame had a younger sister named Plover, who'd married a low-ranking daimyo. Although Plover was long dead, victim of one of the terrible fevers that periodically swept across the island, her daughter was named Ryoko, making Hisame the woman's aunt. 

Well, that also explains why Her Highness doesn't object to my union with Denbe-san, Kimiko thought angrily. Her nephew-in-law getting a connection by marriage to the Fujiwara clan is quite a coup; no doubt her spies are even now settling into Denbe-san's home in the hopes that I will reveal my clan's secrets. But uncle-san must have known about the Dowager's relation with my betrothed husband. Hmm... he must hope that I will remain loyal to my clan and act as his spy in Old Lady Spider's household. More intrigue!! Why do I feel as if I am playing a game of go without all the pieces on the board?!

Then Kimiko noticed something that snatched her thoughts away from the gloomy subject of her upcoming marriage. Lady Ryoko's layered kimonos - about thirty in all - were in various shades of dull scarlet and tissue gold. The beautiful brocade overrobe she wore was heavily embroidered in a cranes motif, cream against purple and copper, bound with a tasseled obi of deep bronze silk. Her ensemble was tasteful and elegant, crafted with the deceptive simplicity that only a trunkful of gold koban could buy. However, the hem of the overrobe was considerably darker than the surrounding material; the fabric appeared to be wet and the moisture was creeping up to Ryoko's knees. 

With a thrill of horror, Kimiko realized that the woven tatami mats Lady Ryoko was sitting on were smudged with spots and splashes of bright crimson. 

She glanced behind her at Ayumi and saw from the samurai's expression that she had noticed it, too. 

Before Kimiko could act, Ayumi rose on one knee, the other leg stretched out in front of her, and used the heel of her out-thrust leg to pull herself along the floor, bending and rolling her leg until she knelt on both knees. Then she repeated the operation with her opposite leg, alternating until she reached the edge of the dais, where she bowed. The crawl-walk was much more masculine than the graceful shuffle most ladies performed, but it was also more efficient, and Ayumi did not care what might be whispered about her personality or sexual proclivities behind her back. 

Looking up, she met the Dowager's flat, hostile gaze. Keeping her hands away from the hilt of her sword, Ayumi said quietly, "The honorable Ryoko-sama has been injured. Shall a doctor be fetched?" 

Startled, Hisame bit back whatever cutting remark she'd been about to make about the samurai's boldness, and looked at Ryoko carefully. Finally, she nodded. Hiding her mouth behind a raised sleeve, the Dowager said softly, "Discreetly, if you please. Send a message to the steward of my household; he will know what to do." 

Ayumi bowed. Crawl-walking away, she rolled her eyes at Kimiko to let her know that all was well, and within moments had dispatched a reliable looking maid to the Dowager's wing of the palace with a verbal message to the steward. Selecting a pair of strong, broad-shouldered female servants, she led them to the dais, where all bowed once again to the Dowager Empress. 

"Since Lady Ryoko is feeling unwell," Ayumi said loudly, attracting the immediate attention of everyone in the room, "I will help her to her room where she may rest a while." Standing up swiftly and gathering the unresisting, sobbing Ryoko into her muscular arms, Ayumi made sure to tuck the lady's robes well around her lower limbs to catch any more tell-tale blood droplets. In her characteristic bow-legged, foot-slapping stomp, the samurai led the two servants to a back room, where Ryoko was deposited onto a two-futon bed with great care. 

As Ayumi disappeared into the other room, the Dowager called, "Poor woman. Keep her there for a while; she is really too delicate of temperament to be subjected to such terrible strain." 

Kimiko glanced from Lady Hisame to the back of her vanishing retainer. Only the sternest control kept her jaw from dropping. Suwa Denbe appeared suddenly, kneeling before the dais and offering his kowtow to the powerful woman and completely ignoring the girl he was supposed to marry. From his calm demeanor, it seemed the lord had recovered from his earlier hysterics. 

"Gomen nasai, honorable auntie! I trust my wife's unfortunate weakness does not inconvenience you?" 

The Dowager bestowed a rare grin on the man. "It does not inconvenience me but your appreciation is gratifying, Denbe-san. Will I be granted the privilege of one of your incomparable poems to commemorate the occasion?" 

Denbe bowed again at the compliment. He was beyond the first flush of youth; at fifty, he was a mature, slightly pot-bellied courtier who wore exquisite clothes, paid excruciating attention to detail and fashion, read all the latest poetry, and affected a round-eyed, grimacing expression that made him look like a constipated frog. He had lost the tall, gauze cap of his rank and Kimiko could easily see the blue-painted area of his scalp revealed by the semi-circular tonsure that swept from forehead to the crown of his head. A fat, oiled topknot fastened with a paper ribbon had been folded over and arranged in the center of this bald space. 

Kimiko thought the rolled bundle of hair resembled a fresh dog turd and she wrinkled her nose in disgust. 

Denbe slewed his eyes towards his prospective bride but did not acknowledge her presence in any way. That would have gone against protocol, which demanded that betrothed couples could not meet socially until the first of the traditional "three visits." 

Instead, he kept his gaze fastened on the Dowager and plucked the fan from his obi. "I will begin work on my new poem as soon as the ga-domen bring word of my daughter." 

In sharp contrast to his wife's behavior, Denbe's eyes were dry and his face was calm. He acted as though the disappearance of his daughter was no more than a minor inconvenience. This was only right and proper. Each of the nobles who looked upon him felt their breasts swell with admiration at the excellent way he hid his grief and pain behind a wall of seeming indifference. 

The Dowager said, "It is very sad that your moon viewing party had to be interrupted. I was looking forward to the poetry competition. I even had some special incense made up for you - it is called Precious-Moondew." 

Kimiko bit her tongue and decided to join Ayumi and Lady Ryoko; she had seen the Dowager's personal physician and his helpers arrive, discreetly sliding into the apartment and oiling their way quietly through the crowd. She bowed to the Dowager, with a slightly shallower bow to Denbe-san - neither of which was acknowledged - and shuffled away, pushing through the kneeling nobles and using her fan to poke the most stubborn obstructers in semi-sensitive areas. 

It took only a few moments before she reached the area where Ayumi had taken Lady Ryoko. 

The doctor was a shrunken but still vigorous old man, whose bald pate was the color and sheen of fine mahogany. He wore billowing, saffron-yellow robes, belted with a hemp cord, and simple rice straw sandals. He had a huge mole growing by the side of his nose, from which two long hairs dangled; Kimiko fought the urge to grab those silvery hairs and pluck them out. 

One of his assistants knelt on the floor, a big wooden medicine box strapped to his back. Another boy twirled burning incense sticks between his fingers, while yet another banged bronze cymbals together and droned healing chants through his nose. A cloud of overly sweet smoke drifted into Kimiko's face; she coughed and waved a hand. Oil lamps cast a faintly golden glow over the proceedings, although the doctor held a candle in his trembling, liver-spotted hand as he puttered around his patient, peering at Ryoko's legs and muttering into his thin, wispy beard. 

Ayumi glided to her lady's side. "Honorable Ryoko has a leg wound," she muttered out of the corner of her mouth. 

"How did that happen?" 

Rather than say she didn't know, Ayumi merely replied, "The doctor is examining the injury now." 

Kimiko looked up at her retainer; Ayumi's crooked nose and square jaw were limned in shadow, throwing these features into prominence. With her short black hair drawn up into a jaunty tea-whisk style topknot and the fierce grimace she usually wore on her face in public, the samurai was so handsome that Kimiko felt as if her belly was melting, dissolving like barley sugar in a hot saucepan. 

The doctor finished his poking and prodding. Ryoko whimpered but did not move; her body was as rigid as a wax doll's. 

"It appears that the Most Honorable Lady has suffered an attack by some sort of animal. Possibly a dog," he concluded. "There are definite tooth marks. I will apply a poultice; the wound is not very large or deep and should heal cleanly." 

Ayumi raised an eyebrow. A dog?

Kimiko shuddered. She remembered Ryoko's outburst on the dais. She said she'd dreamed about a dog... 

On the bed, the lady whispered, "I had a dream..." 

Kimiko suddenly felt faint. 
 

CHAPTER THREE - Life is Fleeting
 

Kirigirisu                               The cricket cries 
Naku ya shimo yo no            In the frost. 
Sumu shiro ni                        On my narrow bed, 
Koromo hatashiki                  In a folded quilt, 
Hitori ka mo nemu.                I sleep alone. 
   -----Fujiwara no Go-Kyogoku, Regent

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Courtyard of the Green Willow
12 a.m., the Hour of the Rat

Ayumi's wrapped her hand around Kimiko's upper arm. "Are you feeling unwell, my lady?" she asked. Although the girl's dead white make-up prevented any hint of her complexion from being seen, there was something about the tight set of her lips that made Ayumi feel very concerned. 

Kimiko leaned into the samurai, grateful for her strength. She felt as if someone had doused her spine in icy water; chills made the small hairs on her arms twitch as if struggling to rise. "I am well," she replied softly. "Only..." 

Ayumi leaned down a little so she could look her mistress directly in the eyes. "What is it? What do you feel?" 

"Something is... not right." Kimiko shook her head. "Gomen nasai, Ayumi-san. I suppose I am feeling bad because poor Ryoko-san has lost a child. The Dowager did not tell me precisely what had happened, though." 

Ayumi had already gotten the pertinent parts of the story from a gossiping servant. While the doctor gave detailed instructions to Ryoko's maids, she put her mouth close to Kimiko's ear and said, "The honorable lady's daughters, Cricket and Moth, were playing in the garden of the apartment next door - the Court of the Silver Bamboo - since their father was hosting a moon viewing party. Some creature attacked Moth but there was no body left behind - only a small pool of blood. No trail, either. The palace guards are conducting a search but all they have found is a single footprint going away from the scene." 

"The girl's?" Kimiko whispered. Ayumi's breath in her ear tickled and thrilled at the same time. She suppressed the urge to turn her head and steal a kiss; such a whim was inappropriate to the time and circumstances, although the girl wished it was otherwise. 

"Iye, my lady. It looked like the footprint of a dog. A big dog, not a noblewoman's pet." 

"Where was Lady Ryoko when this was going on?" 

The samurai scratched the side of her crooked nose. "The Honorable Ryoko was suffering from a headache and retired to her room to rest. She was asleep; two maids were sitting outside the door in case she awoke and needed anything." 

"So how did Ryoko-san come to be bitten by a dog? This is very strange." 

"I agree." Ayumi shifted her weight on her feet. "Perhaps there is some sort of enchantment on the honorable lady? When her daughter was attacked, she bled from the wounds?" 

"But where is Moth?" Kimiko wrinkled her brow in thought. "And what is the significance of Ryoko-san dreaming of a dog and then clearly being bitten by one?" 

"When questions are many," quoted Ayumi from an old folk tale, "seek the three impossibles." 

"An honest fortune teller, an attentive god or a priest who has no lust in his heart," Kimiko replied, finishing the ancient saying. She glanced at the samurai from the corner of her eye. 

On the bed, Ryoko muttered, rolling her neck on the wooden stand that served as a pillow. The doctor hastened to wet her lips with black liquid from a small vial. 

"What is the Dowager up to?" Kimiko asked. "Why try and keep Ryoko's wound a secret?" 

Ayumi said quietly, "Honorable Ryoko is the Dowager's niece. That is enough of an explanation." 

Kimiko thought about that for a moment and made a face. She knew all too well how the game of palace intrigue was played, and Old Lady Spider was a champion. Of course, Hisame-sama wouldn't want speculation scattered around the court like rice grains before a windstorm. Her niece's child disappears in mysterious circumstances, leaving only a pool of blood and a canine footprint behind. The child's mother, supposedly sleeping alone when the attack came, has a wound that could have come from a dog. What if Ryoko is involved somehow? There is a door in this room that leads to the verandah and the garden, and maids have been known to fall asleep. Denbe-san's guests would have been gazing at the moon and writing poetry. Servants would have been attending braziers and sake bottles. It would have been easy for Ryoko to slip away, and the lady's hysteria could be misinterpreted as guilt.

Kimiko sighed. This is the sort of scandal that the Dowager would want to squash like a mosquito before it breeds gossip and rumor that could damage her power at court. Truly, Hisame has a mind more crooked than a dog's hind leg.

"I am afraid for her," the girl said finally, nodding her head in Ryoko's direction. 

Ayumi raised a brow. "Why, my lady? Old Lady Spider will protect her." 

Kimiko looked gravely into the samurai's face. "That is exactly what I'm afraid of," she murmured. "We can do nothing else here. Come with me into the garden; we may find more information there." 

Ayumi shrugged. She did not know why her lady was getting involved in this affair - did Kimiko-san not have enough troubles to ruin her sleep? - but a samurai was born to obey. If poking into other people's business made the girl happy, why not? Life was too fleeting for misery. After all the tears the lady had shed over her upcoming marriage in the past few weeks, Ayumi would have painted her buttocks blue and capered like an ape if it brought a smile to Kimiko's lips. 

Indulging her mistress' curiosity without too much fuss was the least she could do. 

The samurai just hoped this wasn't the prelude to more rains of chamberpots from Heaven. 

How much incense would it take to purchase a spiritual umbrella, she thought idly, following Kimiko out onto the verandah. 

Behind them on the bed, Ryoko muttered indistinctly while the doctor stroked the twin, silvery hairs of his mole and signaled for a vial of stronger medicine. 


Oshida Saburo, newly appointed jeichou of the palace ga-domen, stroked his mustache and made a face like a demon mask, screwing up his mouth and scowling so fiercely the men around him flinched. "And you say there is no blood trail?" he asked in his booming voice. 

The guard who knelt on the ground in front of him kept his eyes fixed on the commander's sandaled feet. He appeared to be fascinated by the bunions, gnarled toes and jagged yellow nails that were exposed by Saburo's disdain for tabi socks. "There is no trail at all," the guard said, "and the bamboo is only disturbed in the area around the blood pool. Some grass has been scorched, as if by fire, but no other plants have been damaged. There is no sign of the girl." 

"I see." Saburo was a big-bellied but solid middle-aged man, squat and powerful, who disdained the colorful, multi-layered kimonos of the nobility and preferred to wear lacquered bamboo armor strapped over a black, formal five-crest robe. His hakama - also black were made of the coarsest grade cotton and heavily starched. He ate plain food and lived as simply as possible. While Saburo had heard of subtlety, he strongly disapproved of the notion, believing that any problem could be solved if you threw enough common sense at it. 

The guard trembled slightly; the involuntary motion was barely perceptible but Saburo had very good eyesight for a man his age. "You may go," he said gruffly, dismissing the man, muttering under his breath, "Weak livered spawn of a moon-crazed toad. You and your soft-palmed kind are as useless as tits on a mountain boar." 

The commander stroked his mustache again. The ferociously bristling mustache hung over his upper lip, almost obscuring his mouth, and the tips curled around almost to his ears. Saburo's rank entitled him to wear a small, four-sided gauze cap but he preferred a helmet, the neck guard dangling loosely down his back. He spread his legs apart to ease the ache in the small of his back and wished that the Emperor had not forbidden torture as a means of obtaining confessions. The jeichou was positive this case could be solved in heartbeats if servants, maids and other lowly persons had been subjected to persuasions of the bamboo splinter and plaited whip variety. They are all guilty of something, he thought glumly. 

A woman's voice beside him made him pause. "Have you questioned the other child, Saburo-san?" it asked. 

Saburo turned his gaze towards a petite and pretty lady of the nobility, who smiled gently and bowed her head. She was unmarried - the girl's teeth were salty white instead of gleaming black - and the thick lead make-up and rouge on her face failed to disguise the lady's obvious youth. 

He cleared his throat. "I am Oshida Saburo of the Standing Cranes clan," he said politely. "Commander of the palace guards, protector of the Son of Heaven - may he live ten thousand years. Gomen nasai, my lady, I mean no offense, however... might one ask who you are and what is your interest in this unfortunate matter?" 

The girl might have flushed - it was difficult to tell. "I am Fujiwara no Kimiko," she said. "Lord Denbe is my betrothed husband." 

Saburo's eyes flickered. This Kimiko-sama was clearly related to the powerful Kanpuko, Fujiwara Saneyoshi. Much as he disliked civilians thrusting themselves into his investigations, especially noble monkey-samas with more breeding than brains, he had not gained his position by acting like a fool. She would have to be tolerated... for now. Should the chit's interference escalate to annoying proportions, he would assign some handsome and vacuous young guardsman to keep her occupied - in bed and out 

"Please forgive my ignorance," he said, giving the girl a low bow. "How may I be of assistance, Kimiko-sama?" 

"The missing girl's sister, Cricket... have you questioned her?" 

Saburo raised his eyebrows. "The child is ill," he replied. "I understand the attack frightened her so much that her soul is wandering." 

Kimiko frowned. "Gomen nasai, honorable commander, I do not wish to tell you how to do your job..." 

"Then do not," he suggested firmly. "I assure you, we will find whatever - or whoever - has done this terrible thing. I do not tolerate murder within the palace walls." 

"Then you believe Moth is dead?" 

Saburo shrugged. He'd had enough of this impertinent lady's questions already. "The child is gone. Probably attacked by an animal that dragged the body away, some wild beast..." He shrugged again. "Shigata ga nai." 

Another voice spoke up - also female, but with a deeper, more resonant tone. "You found a dog's footprint." It was not a question but a statement of fact. 

The woman who had spoken strutted up to the commander in a bow-legged, stomping stride that put him in mind of the cock that ruled the dungheap. She had two swords, long and short, thrust through her obi, and her nose looked like it had been stepped on by an ox. "Who are you?" Saburo asked, chuffing air through his mustache. 

"Ichijo Ayumi," the female samurai said with a bow, "of the Rising Waves clan." 

"My personal retainer," Kimiko chirped helpfully. 

Saburo regarded the samurai with initial disapproval. A quick flick of his gaze revealed that the hilt of her katana had been bound by wire and sealed in wax to the scabbard, as required by law. Her clothing was no less rich than that of her mistress, if much simpler. A persimmon red overrobe in a subtle leaf pattern was held closed by a knotted gold cord; the thinnest line of a pumpkin colored kosode worn next to her skin was revealed at throat and wrists. Her hakama were gold brocade, so stiffly starched they could have stood by themselves. Ayumi-san looked like one of those prosperous, useless samurai who composed poems to their swords and couldn't wield one properly to save their lives. 

And yet... there was clearly muscle beneath the silk. Her eyes burned with a true warrior's passion. That katana was not an ornamental blade but clearly a practical weapon. Judging from her attitude - how could one swagger while standing still? - Ayumi-san knew how to use it. Saburo suddenly had the feeling that this was one samurai he wouldn't want to offend... not unless he was tired of the world and felt a craving to visit Buddha's country until the Wheel turned 'round again. 

"Gomen nasai," he said, keeping his hands well away from the swords in his obi. The soft wire binding the woman's katana was a symbolic gesture and not really meant to keep her from drawing it. Of course, it was death to do so within the city walls but she looked fanatic enough not to care. "Hai, Ayumi-san, you are perfectly correct. A dog's footprint was found. It means nothing." 

Ayumi cocked her head to one side. "Please forgive my ignorance, honorable Saburo-san, but does the footprint not suggest that Moth was attacked by some sort of dog?" 

Saburo shook his head. "Alas, no. Many of the noble women have pets who are permitted free reign of the palace grounds. Ill-tempered beasts but hardly capable of killing anyone, including a child." 

"I see." Ayumi glanced at Kimiko and pretended to be satisfied with the commander's answer. Saburo was concealing the fact that the footprint could not have belonged to a court dog; they were bulging eyed, curly tailed Chin who lacked in height what they made up for in sheer yapping stupidity. The samurai had found out about the size of the print by servant's gossip. Fairly reliable at this moment but given human nature... 

By nightfall tomorrow, Ayumi thought, that single piece of evidence will have been transformed into a fifty foot tall, fire belching, lightning farting monster and there will be at least fifty witnesses who will swear they saw it swallow Moth in one gulp and then fly away to rattle the Rainbow Buddha's nightsoil bucket, shitting snakes and pissing sake all the while. Baka! 

"Some of the guests have told me that they heard Cricket crying out about demon fires," Kimiko said, quickly changing the subject. "Could a fox spirit have been involved?" 

Saburo crushed the urge to roll his eyes impatiently. "The Abbot of Kashikodokoro has already assured me that no supernatural or magic influences have been at work. Perhaps a wild beast has escaped from the Son of Heaven's menagerie. I have some of my men questioning the keeper." 

Kimiko bowed. "It is a pity that Cricket's soul has wandered away from her body. I suppose it was the shock." 

"Hai," the commander replied, catching the eye of a ga-domen who was trying to be noticed without interrupting his superior's conversation. "The Abbot took the child to the shrine; I suppose he hopes to cure her with healing prayers and rituals. If he is successful and revives Cricket from her sleep, I will certainly ask some questions about the younger sister's death." 

Saburo bowed to indicate the interview was over. "If you will excuse me, please." A wave of his beefy arm brought the ga-domen scurrying over. 

"Gomen nasai, honorable commander," the guard said breathlessly, dropping to his knees and bowing low. His robes were askew, the gauze cap on his head hanging down his back from its cord. He had clearly been running. "There is news from the Hall of Moonflowers." 

Kimiko did not have to strain her ears to listen; Saburo had not moved away, just turned his back on the females he had dismissed. That part of the palace houses the courtesans of the nobility, she thought. I wonder what has happened?

"Yes?" Saburo rumbled, finger going up to rub his mustache, the type of gesture a man might make when stroking a lucky charm. 

The ga-domen bowed again and kept his face turned to the ground. Delivering bad tidings to one's superior was the most dangerous part of his occupation. "Something has happened in the Hall of Moonflowers," he said, his voice slightly muffled. "An honorable 'one night wife' has disappeared." 

"So?" Saburo felt relieved. "She is merely kuragae, a change of saddles. Probably packed her jewels and ran off with a smooth tongued clerk who will pillow her like a crazed rabbit and dump her in the nearest brothel. Why do foolish women always confuse lust with love?" He sighed. "Pick five other men, go down to the city guardhouse and see the captain - you do know Honorable Shrike, don't you? - and coordinate a search with his men. Alert the gate guards as well. You should be able to find the stupid whore before her lord gets wind of the affair." 

The guard kept his head down. "Please forgive me, honored commander. The courtesan called Small Water Dragon has not run away." He gulped and Kimiko had to strain to hear his next words. "It is believed that she has been murdered." 

Saburo stared, mouth dropping open, mustache suddenly limp. 

Ayumi bent over and hissed in Kimiko's ear, "What is the name of Denbe-sama's courtesan?" 

Kimiko blinked. "I... I think it is Small Water Dragon," she whispered. 

The women looked at one another. 

Things were looking very inauspicious for the house of Suwa Denbe.

 

CHAPTER FOUR - Dancing Teacups
Na mo kaesu              I give my name back

Hana jo jodo e           As I step in

Yado hairi.                 This heaven of flowers.

                 -----Inseki

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Court of Golden Koi
2 a.m.,  the Hour of the Ox

"Come, my lady," Izumi said soothingly. "Sit down and I will comb your hair. "

Kimiko and Ayumi had returned home after a brief visit to the Hall of Moonflowers. The courtesan Small Water Dragon was indeed missing; a few small spots of blood and a torn scrap of white silk were the only clues to her disappearance. Of course, the woman could have run away, but her connection to Suwa Denbe and his very recent misfortune made that possibility unlikely.

While Kimiko gratefully shed her cumbersome kimonos and allowed Izumi to run a comb through her knee-length locks, Ayumi squatted on the floor beside a charcoal brazier and stirred up the fire with a pair of long brass needles. When the coals were glowing hot crimson through a layer of crumbling ash, the samurai reached into her sleeve and withdrew a bit of cloth.

Kimiko had been watching with slitted eyes; now she opened them wide. "I thought Saburo-san took that!"

Ayumi shrugged. "He thought he did, too." Her tone was slightly smug. The ragged piece of white silk had been found near the verandah door in Small Water Dragon's tiny room. Saburo might have thought he had thrust the clue into the breast of his kimono, but the samurai's clever fingers and light touch had liberated the scrap from beneath his very nose, so to speak.

Now she held the fabric up to the brazier and squinted. "Hmph." There was a look of fierce concentration on Ayumi's face. "This is unexpected."

"What is it?" Kimiko was rapt.

Ayumi looked up, distracted. "Hmm? It is nothing, my lady. Nothing of consequence." She looked thoughtfully at the white silk and then it seemed her fingers lost their grip. The little white rag blew into the brazier, there was a tiny puff of flame, and a few black cinders swirled out of the burning charcoal.

"Oh, no!" Kimiko wailed, hand reaching towards the brazier. It was too late.

"Gomen nasai," the samurai said, bowing her head. "The fault is mine. Please forgive my clumsiness."

Kimiko frowned. Ayumi couldn't have done that on purpose... could she?

"Well, my lady, would you like a nice cup of tea before retiring?" Izumi asked brightly, getting up with a smothered grunt and straightening her plain blue robes. "I will fetch one for you as well, samurai."

Ayumi raised an eyebrow in surprise but decided not to comment.

Kimiko hid a huge yawn behind her hand, deciding she was too tired to pursue the issue of her samurai's suspicious clumsiness tonight. She did not see Ayumi take a clay vial out of her sleeve and quickly down the contents.

Izumi returned shortly, carrying a tray. "Here you are, my lady," she crooned, kneeling down with stiff kneed grace. She poured two cups of tea and, when she thought no one was looking, dropped a small white tablet into each vessel.

"Tea is very soothing for the nerves," Ayumi said in a friendly manner, "and we have all had a long day. Please, Izumi-san, have some yourself."

Kimiko nodded. "Yes, Izumi, I insist you join us."

The moon-faced maid glanced at Ayumi, whom she trusted no further than a pig could fly. The samurai's expression showed no trace of suspicion. It really is for the best, Izumi thought, pouring herself a cup of steaming green tea. My lady will sleep through the first visit, just as I told Denbe-sama, and the drug has no ill effects. The lord has promised to be gentle but my lady is so fragile, so frightened... it is better that he pluck her 'barrier blossom' when she can feel no pain. The next time, after her yoni has stretched, his honorable eel will find its nest easier and she will be able to enjoy the game of Clouds and Rain.

She also had no qualms about drugging Ayumi. That samurai will only cause difficulty. Now she will get a good night's sleep and be none the worse for it tomorrow.

Three identical cups sat on the tray. Tendrils of steam curled softly into the air. Izumi reached for one and was forestalled by Ayumi. "Please allow me to serve," she said with a smile.

"It is my duty to serve the mistress," Izumi hissed.

"You have much on your mind," Ayumi replied reasonably. "Wedding rites, the feast, my lady's robes, gifts... it has been a busy time for you lately, Izumi-san. Let me do this for you, please, as a token of gratitude for your excellent service."

Put that way, Izumi could not refuse. She settled back with ill grace, seething as she watched Ayumi distribute the cups - giving Kimiko the one that had not been drugged.

Thinking fast, the maid looked over her shoulder and cried, "Oh! What a beautiful moth!"

Ayumi and Kimiko turned to look, and Izumi quickly exchanged cups with Kimiko.

When both women transferred their gazes back to the maid, she shrugged and smiled. "I must have been mistaken. How foolish of me! I am not getting any younger and my eyesight is not what it used to be. Please forgive this poor old woman."

"You might be going blind," Ayumi replied, "but has your nose fled the waking world as well?" When Izumi gave her a blank look, the samurai continued blandly, "I smell smoke, oh honorable elder. Your sleeve is on fire."

Izumi snatched the smoldering sleeve of her kimono from the brazier with a blistering oath.

Kimiko giggled.

Ayumi yawned.

The maid pulled the edges of her slightly charred sleeve through her fingers and considered. While she'd been distracted, had she perhaps heard a soft clatter - the sort of tell-tale whisper of a sound, just on the edge of perception, that might, just might, indicate two cups quietly exchanged by a samurai with more predictability than cleverness? Was there perhaps a trace of self-satisfaction in Ayumi's oh-so-bland expression? 

Izumi decided that this was exactly the case. "Do I hear someone creeping onto the verandah?" she asked calmly, once again switching cups with Kimiko. She didn't need to think about whose cup to take; of course Ayumi would want to protect her mistress by taking the drugged tea herself. 

Ayumi reached out and took the cup in front of her, holding it in both hands. "I am afraid, honorable elder, that your hearing has fled this vile world as well. It was only the wind." 

"Ah." Izumi bowed her head. "Please forgive this miserable worm." 

The samurai smiled. "Let us drink our tea and retire. I have heard that chill winds love nothing better than to gnaw on old bones and I would not see you become a feast for the elements." 

The maid flushed slightly. Ayumi seemed too confident, too amused. Something was wrong. 

"Oh! Let me take that!" Izumi exclaimed, deftly plucking the cup from Ayumi's fingers. "There is a crack in the rim. You could have cut yourself!" 

Kimiko burst out, "For Buddha's sake! Here!" She grabbed the offending vessel from Izumi, shoved her own cup at Ayumi, and drained the tea she was holding in one gulp. "I am tired and I wish to prepare for bed without listening to the two of you bicker like the nightsoil collector and his wife. Damare!" 

Izumi gathered the shreds of her dignity around her and said, "Of course, my lady." She drank her tea, got up from her knees, and went to a beautifully lacquered chest to bring out the bedding. 

Kimiko glared at Ayumi, who quirked her lips into a half-smile and hastily slurped the cup of lukewarm tea in front of her. "It is a fine night," the samurai said. "I think I will sleep on the verandah." 

Izumi whirled about, a look of dismay on her full-moon face which changed in a heartbeat to one of smug triumph. 

Ayumi pretended not to notice. 

Kimiko yawned again, this time her mouth stretching open so wide that tiny tears sprang from the corners of her eyes. "Sleep where you please," she said grumpily. "Just don't wake me up with the roosters. Izumi! Is my futon ready yet?" 

"In a moment, my lady," the maid replied, rolling out the thick mattress and flipping a quilt in the shape of a kimono over the top. Kimiko's wooden pillow, a block with a half-moon cut out of the top to accommodate her neck, was placed on the floor at the head. 

Kimiko could barely keep her eyes open. Izumi hardly had time to peel off her saffron yellow kosode before the girl literally fell into bed, asleep before her body hit the futon. 

The maid carefully covered her up and shoved a charcoal brazier closer to Kimiko's feet. "Sleep well, little mistress," she said softly. 

Ayumi stroked her upper lip. Her eyelids fluttered and the muscles of her jaw contracted, as if she was stifling a prodigious yawn. "I, too, will retire," the samurai said with a strangely nasal undertone to her voice. 

Izumi nodded. The drug was working, just as she'd planned. 

Ayumi stumbled out of the room and onto the verandah, closing the shoji-door behind her. 

Izumi yawned. It had been a long day but the night would be even longer. She would wait for Denbe-sama's visit and make sure all went well. 

She settled herself on her knees, hands together in her lap. 

The flames in the brazier flickered, drawing her gaze. 

Silence except for the pattering of raindrops on the roof. 

A heaviness settled in her breast, drawing her downward. 

Dimness... 

Slowly, slowly, became darkness and... 

Oblivion. 


Suwa Denbe glided through the garden, adjusting his tall gauze cap of state. He wore his most colorful set of robes, including a new silver tissue overrobe, and all of his kimonos reeked of the clove incense he preferred. His plump face, adorned with a ridiculous tuft of hair on his chin, was slathered in greasy white lead cosmetics, with dots of scarlet rouge on lips and cheeks, and his eyebrows had been shaved off. Denbe's hair was newly dressed with camellia oil and blue make-up filled in the bald area of his tonsure from forehead to crown. 

He was the very picture of a pampered court dandy and the way he strutted up to the verandah outside the Court of Golden Koi showed that he knew it, too. 

He stopped on the steps, smoothing his robes and checking to see if the bottoms of his high platformed geta were clean of dog shit. 

Suddenly, he paused, drawing in a quick breath. Cold steel pressed against his throat, the razored edge dimpling his tender flesh. 

"Dame duso," a voice said in the darkness directly behind him. "A very bad idea, thief." 

"I..." Denbe cleared his throat and the sword bit sharply, almost but not quite drawing blood. "I... I am no thief... I am..." 

"Silence!" the voice hissed. "Anyone who creeps on cat feet through a lady's garden and prepares to enter her rooms without being announced is definitely a thief. Do you know what I do to thieves?" 

"N-n-n-no..." 

"Neither does anyone else. They just disappear - poof! - like a fart in a windstorm." 

Denbe thought about this a moment. Knees knocking together, he gulped and said, "M-m-m-may I go now?" 

The voice said thoughtfully, "Now, if I were - for the argument's sake - a lord who was visiting a girl he hoped to marry..." 

"Yes?" Denbe sounded hopeful. 

"And I came to her house, thinking to share her pillow and wet my jade pole in her maidenly juices..." 

"Yes?" 

"Then I would go home right now, write a nice 'morning after' letter and spend the rest of the evening contemplating my navel in the hopes of eventual rebirth as something higher than a cockroach." 

"Oh..." 

"And I would not, if I valued the attachment of my head to my shoulders, want to be mistaken for a thief again. Do you understand me?" 

"Ah." 

"I think you do." 

The sword withdrew. A shadow stepped to the side, within Denbe's range of vision. He could not make out a face or form. 

"Good night," the voice said. "Please remember that I guard my lady's chambers night and day, and I am always very watchful of thieves." There was a movement which may have been a bow. "I hesitate to mention this, but if I were this questionable lord and I thought of canceling the marriage over such a trivial matter as this, thus causing shame to the lady and dishonor to her house..." 

"Yes?" 

"Then I might find comfort in contemplating the little fishies swimming past my toes because I will have foolishly thrown myself into the Kamo River chained to a stone anchor. How long did you say you could hold your breath?" 

"I see." And he did. Despite his foppish appearance, Denbe was not a fool. He clearly understood the threat and wondered if this guard was in the pay of the Regent. Preventing him from despoiling his niece - even under the auspices of ancient tradition - was something Saneyoshi-sama would do if he felt it necessary. After all, Denbe could cancel the marriage if he did not find Kimiko pleasing in bed, and that would make the chit less desirable to other suitors. According to custom, refusing to send a 'morning after' letter after the first visit would sever his betrothal... and then he was sure he would suffer the wrath of Kanpuko and Dowager alike. 

If I do not marry this little bitch, those two will cut me to pieces and feed me to the dogs, he thought. I dare not refuse, even after such an insult. I will have to suffer this humiliation silently... and when we are truly wed, Kimiko-san will feel the weight of my displeasure, I swear.

"I have a letter to write," Denbe said, seething inside but outwardly as cold as a kappa's backside . "I am sure this lord of whom you speak would never dream of violating a young lady's hopes by refusing marriage even under such unusual circumstances." 

"I am so glad we understand one another. Sleep well and be careful on your way back. The palace guards are not known for their discretion." 

Denbe gave a shallow, jerky bow and stumbled off the steps, thoroughly enraged by his inability to act. He comforted himself with the thought that when the marriage was consummated, Kimiko would pay for her uncle's interference. 

I will keep her pregnant and exiled to the country, he raged to himself on the long walk back to the Courtyard of the Green Willow. I will dress her in rags, make her beg for every grain of rice and brick of charcoal. I will make sure her house is poor, the paper screen full of holes, the floors resounding with the scurrying of rats and roaches.

In the end, she will beg me to allow her to shave her head and become a nun!

I, Suwa Denbe, thus swear!

 

CHAPTER FIVE - Scorpion at the Tori Gate

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Court of Golden Koi
8 a.m.,  the first Hour of the Dragon

 

Izumi groaned, rolled over and opened her eyes with a shudder. Buddha!

Ayumi was mending a sandal; when the plump maid groaned again and made thrashing motions as if to rise, she put the zori aside. "Do you require assistance, honorable elder?" she asked with raised eyebrows.

Izumi snapped a foul oath and rubbed her forehead. "Ai-eee! Oni demons are dancing in my skull, wearing needle studded geta!" she complained, managing to heave her stiff body into a sitting position.

"Then I had better mix some Four Mystic White Tiger Water for Kimiko-sama," Ayumi said, referring to a popular hangover remedy imported from mainland Kara. "Judging from your condition, our lady will need it when she wakes."

"Did some lecherous priest pour sake down our throats while we were asleep?" Izumi asked, digging the heels of her palms into her temples.

"No," Ayumi replied calmly, putting an iron kettle of water on the charcoal brazier to heat. "It was the sleeping drug you got from Old Kyuri. Only a fool buys medicine from a pimp and expects it to be first quality."

Izumi's eyes opened wide. "Oh! My lady! The first visit!" she exclaimed, and made as if to rise. Ayumi grabbed her sleeve and forced her to sit again.

"Kimiko-sama is fine," the samurai said with an angry glint in her eyes.

"But the lord! It is past dawn... he must return to his quarters..."

"He already has."

"I must have fallen asleep. I was not even awake to greet him properly..." Suddenly, Izumi's eyes narrowed as she recalled Ayumi's earlier words. "You!" she spat. "How did you know about the drug? And what have you done?!"

Ayumi's face was set like stone and despite her anger, Izumi flinched slightly at the terrible look in the samurai's black eyes. "Of course I knew about the drug, old woman. I am in charge of our mistress' security; nothing escapes me!"

Izumi stared in increasing disbelief while Ayumi went on, "I pay the Old Cucumber a few mon a week for the names of those who buy his drugs... just in case someone tries to add a surprise to Kimiko-sama's morning rice."

"You switched cups..."

"No, I didn't, but you obviously thought so." Ayumi shrugged. "The first time I distracted you, I added a sleeping potion to your cup."

Izumi's mouth opened and closed a few times.

The samurai continued, "That business of switching teacups was nonsense; they were all drugged. You were very clever, though, with all your distractions. I was very impressed."

"You drank it, too!"

"Of course! But I took the precaution of swallowing oil beforehand to coat my stomach, then I stuck a finger down my throat when I went outside." Ayumi shuddered. "I beg you, woman, do not make me have to do that again. Tea is pleasant going down but tastes terrible coming up!"

Izumi shook her head. "What happened with Denbe-sama?"

"We had a very pleasant chat. He decided that custom could be waived; there will be no more 'visits' until after the wedding. I found my sword to be an excellent argument against a cruel tradition."

"Hateful, shameful woman!" Izumi hissed. "You only did this to keep my lady's innocence for yourself! You act like a bitch in heat with no thought for duty or honor. If my mistress suffers for your selfishness, I will..."

Ayumi interrupted, "Make no promises you cannot keep." Finished with the sandal, she carefully wound the rest of the thread around the needle and placed it in her sleeve. "I did what I thought was best for Kimiko-sama, which is more than I can say for you."

"What?! How dare you!" Izumi screeched. "My lady is making an excellent match with a well respected lord. This marriage will bring honor to her clan and happiness to her life. How dare you suggest I behaved improperly! Everything I have done is to Kimiko-sama's benefit."

"Are you certain of that?" Ayumi held the sandal loosely in her hand. "Do you know anything at all about Denbe-san or were you blinded by the brilliance of his title and birth?"

"I did not..."

"He has heavy gambling debts. He is also a frequent visitor to the pleasure quarter, where he is notorious for despoiling virgins of both sexes. Denbe-san despises his poor principal wife; it was an arranged marriage and you must admit the lady is not a great beauty. I spoke to the midwife who was in attendance during Ryoko-san's miscarriages; she told me that he beat his wife until she lost the babies. Then he was cruel enough to give his wife the care of three children by his second wives and a cheap courtesan. Is this truly the type of man who is right for Kimiko-sama?"

Izumi lowered her eyes. She had not bothered investigating the lord's background; indeed, she'd not been interested at all. The fact that Kimiko's uncle desired the match had been enough. And, if truth were to be acknowledged, the maid feared her mistress' growing attachment to Ayumi. Such relationships were dishonorable and invariably led to tragedy.

"I have tried to protect our mistress in the best way I could," Izumi said quietly. "It does not matter if Denbe-sama is right or wrong, cruel or pleasant. She must be married; her uncle desires it, the Dowager desires it, and it is a woman's lot to suffer a husband. I only thought to spare Kimiko-sama any pain in the beginning; she will learn the reality of the bedchamber soon enough."

"Agreed." Ayumi shifted on her knees. "I do not like the way you went about it, though."

Suddenly, the samurai tossed the mended sandal to Izumi, who caught it in one hand.

The water in the kettle began to boil. Steam poured from the spout, a tumbling cloud of hot white mist.

Ayumi's hand drifted to her sword. There was a startling chink as the wire tie binding hilt to scabbard was sent flying, the samurai deliberately re-breaking the hasty repair she'd made earlier. The wax seal fell to the floor.

In a movement so lightning swift that the eye could not follow, Ayumi rose up on one knee, drew the sword and struck, exhaling with a hard chuff of breath, and in the next split second returned her katana to its scabbard. Her hands were folded together in her lap and a bead of sweat trickled down the side of her bent nose.

The sandal in Izumi's hand fell apart, split in two perfect halves. Her flesh was untouched.

The maid shook.

This was a demonstration of iaido, the skill of quickly drawing and cutting from a seated position. It was one of the most difficult arts to master. Had Ayumi desired, she could have sliced Izumi in half as easily as the sandal, and the maid would not have had time to blink in protest.

"There are two types of people in the world," the samurai said quietly, plucking the wax seal from the mat and tucking it into the bosom of her kimono. "There are human beings and there are kuso - shit. I try not to kill human beings; it is bad for my karma. However, I have no problem ridding the world of shit."

Izumi could not reply. She stared at the remains of the sandal and gulped.

Ayumi rose gracefully. "You would do well to keep yourself in the first category, old woman." Her tone was friendly. "I do not appreciate people going behind my back. I do not appreciate people trying to be clever at my expense. And I especially do not appreciate those who attempt to harm my lady, even though they do it out of misguided goodness."

The samurai pulled a haori coat from the bamboo rack and slipped it on. "I must go out for a while. Give our lady the headache remedy when she awakens."

Izumi roused herself from her trance. "Where are you going?" she asked, unconsciously rubbing severed bits of rice straw between her fingers.

Ayumi shot her a sharp glance and the maid lowered her eyes. "I must see to the state of my soul," she answered cryptically. She opened the shoji-door and started to leave, but stopped and looked over her shoulder. "The kettle is boiling dry," she observed, and then was gone.

Izumi touched the handle of the kettle and snatched back burnt fingers.

Her hands shook as she used a rag to remove the scalding iron vessel from the brazier.

Behind her, Kimiko stirred. "Oh!" she moaned. "My head has been trampled by kago bearers! What in Buddha's name happened last night? Izumi! Cha, please!"

The maid began preparing a cup of the Karan medicine...

And after a moment's thought, stirred up a second for herself.

It was going to be a long, long day.


Ayumi walked through the palace corridors in a flat-footed, bow-legged stomping trot, keeping a hand on the hilt of her katana to conceal the fact that the wire seal had been broken - an offense punishable by death, should it be noticed. 

The hour was too early for the usual crowd of nobles and courtiers; instead, servants and acolyte priests haunted the hallways, scurrying to and fro on errands for their masters. Fortune tellers squatted along the walls, rattling their begging bowls and crying out to attract business. A wandering priest of the fertility goddess Amanouzume had set up a portable shrine and was doling out pregnancy prevention charms to nervous maids. A sorcerer, clad in impressive black robes and a high peaked, lacquered silk cap, stood nearby, sleeves filled with tiny vials of exotic medicines. 

Ayumi headed in a southerly direction, towards the main imperial gardens. Besides the usual plants and flowers, this thirty acre site boasted an ornamental lake large enough to hold boat races, a field for archery contests, beautifully sculptured rock gardens, and a tiny river that snaked around the outskirts, complete with miniature waterfalls and stocked with ribbon-finned koi. 

The imperial garden also contained the only Shinto shrine within the palace walls. 

There was a small forest on the easternmost edge; pines, oaks and maples had been allowed to grow unchecked for centuries, creating a dense mass of trees that was home to tame deer, foxes and hares. It was used mainly by nobles who wanted to experience the thrill of hunting without the inconvenience of actually chasing wild game. 

Ayumi slipped unnoticed into the woods and without hesitation turned her course away from the established trails and struck out to the north. Soggy dead leaves squelched underfoot; autumn might have meant a colorful display from the trees but it also brought heavy rainfall and the ground was saturated with water. 

After walking much further than she'd expected, she arrived at the tori gate that indicated the presence of the shrine. It resembled a doorway, with two straight posts supporting a third that lay horizontally across the top. Swags made from the grain heads of unripened rice were draped around and over the gate, offerings to the kami spirits that dwelled here. 

The shrine itself was only a few steps away from the gate. It was a simple, almost crude affair, built of cedar planks and apparently held together by moss and optimism. As Ayumi approached, a woman came out of the building. 

She was dressed entirely in white - kimono, hakama and obi. To Buddhists, this was the color of death, a deeply inauspicious hue that was never worn by the living. In Shinto, white was sacred; albino animals were held in deep regard, as evidenced by a pair of pale, pink-eyed snakes that were coiled around a clay bowl of milk in the courtyard. 

The priestess' head was shaven except for a small forelock and a long, braided tail at the base of her neck. Her skin had absolutely no color at all; the tracery of blue veins in her hands, arms and face could be clearly seen. Like the snakes, her eyes were an eerie pink, lashes and brows so colorless they were nonexistent. 

She bowed deeply. "I am called Snow Fairy," the priestess said. Her voice was deep and melodious. "How may I serve the honored one?" 

Ayumi gave her a brisk bow. "Please excuse me for interrupting your worship. I have come on behalf of Lady Ryoko. I assume you have heard the news?" 

There was no expression on Snow's face. "I live here, far away from the palace," she replied coolly. "I fear my calling is not fashionable enough to permit me the luxury of gossip." 

Ayumi cocked an eyebrow. This was no real answer but she hadn't expected anything else. "May we go inside to discuss the matter? I am very weary from my long walk." 

"Alas! Please forgive me, honorable samurai. My house is in great disorder and I would not subject you to such rude accommodations." She bowed as if to conceal her shame, straightened up, and waited expectantly. 

The two women stared at one another in silence. 

Ayumi suddenly knelt, grabbed the hem of Snow's robe and pulled it forward. The kimono was rough cotton, a subtle white-on-white snowflake pattern woven into the fabric... and it was completely intact. The samurai released the robe and stood. She'd been so sure that the scrap found in the Hall of Moonflowers had belonged to this woman and to be wrong about such an important thing was very humiliating. 

The type of cotton worn by the attacker is exactly like this, Ayumi thought angrily. Snowflake pattern and all. This priestess is too poor to own more than one robe, so I must be mistaken. Baka! How many Shinto shrines in the city must I search now?

"Gomen nasai," she mumbled, frustration bringing a flush to her face. "I thought I saw a scorpion." 

Snow raised her brows in polite disbelief. There were no scorpions in the Floating World. "Have you discovered that which you were seeking?" 

"Iye. It seems I must seek elsewhere for answers. Please forgive me for disturbing you." 

Ayumi turned to go. Snow's lips twisted and she flung out a hand. "Please wait." 

The samurai looked over her shoulder. 

"I must tell you that your mistress is in grave danger," the priestess said swiftly, glancing around as if afraid of being overheard. "I will not... I cannot say more." 

"Thank you for the warning," Ayumi replied gravely. She hesitated and finally asked, "Do you know of any Buddhist sects that wear white robes?" 

"No." 

"Ah. Well, that lessens my task by half at least." The samurai strolled away, thumbs tucked into her obi

Snow watched Ayumi leave, a small smile curving her lips. 

"I like that one," she whispered to the snakes. "She will go far, I think, although I wonder if she is willing to go far enough." 

The snakes hissed a warning. 

Within the darkness of the temple... something moved. 
 
 

CHAPTER SIX - Magpie Rice

Kasasagi no                   If I see that bridge 
Wataseru hashi mi          That is spanned by flights of magpies 
Okushimo no                  Across the arc of heaven 
Shiroki o mierba             Made white with a deep laid frost 
Yo zo fuke ni keru         Then the night is almost past. 
                -----Chunagon Yakamochi

Katsura-no-miyo, the Imperial Palace of the Fragrant Trees
The Courtyard of the Green Willow
10 a.m.,  the first Hour of the Snake

Lady Ryoko's condition had worsened. Trapped in the unrelenting grasp of a deep fever, she sweated and raved while priests droned sutras, costly incense smoldered, and the doctor tried everything from acupuncture to burning cones of powdered spice on the lady's skin in an effort to drive the illness from her veins. 

Kimiko patted her forehead with a square of linen. The foul tasting remedy Izumi had given her for the headache seemed to be working but her stomach felt a bit delicate. The morning rice gruel hadn't settled well and it felt as if her breakfast was lodged in one big lump just behind her breastbone. The girl burped delicately into her sleeve and settled down to watch as the exasperated doctor called upon the Myriads of Myriads to witness that Ryoko's continued illness was not his fault - he now believed the woman was suffering a spiritual attack by demons. 

This was the signal for the priests to take over. Representatives of various sects filed into the small, smoky room, each vying to out-chant the others. Kimiko, the servants and several of the Dowager's maids-in-waiting were squeezed into a corner, their view blocked by saffron robes and sandaled feet. 

Kimiko rolled her eyes as the Bishop of Onkei's fat, pimpled and tone deaf acolyte bawled magical spells in a screeching falsetto that reminded her of a cat with its tail caught in a meat grinder. 

She had been ordered to attend Ryoko by the Dowager's command, a duty she could not avoid. Left to her own devices, unable to escape and wishing she were anywhere but here, Kimiko folded her hand together in her lap and cast her mind back to the previous night. 

Ayumi's transparently deliberate destruction of the scrap found in the Hall of Moonflowers both troubled and surprised her. The obvious explanation had to do with her own security but Kimiko had no idea how she could be connected to Small Water Dragon's disappearance. 

Like the difference between ripples and deep water, the girl thought. If you cannot find the truth on the surface, look beyond.

That bit of white cloth must have been an important clue, pointing directly to someone or something. Ayumi was protecting... who? Or what? 

Only the Shinto sect wears white as a matter of course, Kimiko thought. Either that or someone in mourning. Or... could a walking corpse be involved? Was the scrap from a shroud? But why would Ayumi-san wish to save a foul kyuketsuki from destruction? This makes no sense!

Clouds of perfumed incense smoke threatened to choke everyone in the room. Kimiko snapped open her fan to a chorus of stifled coughs from the other attendants and waved the offending fumes away. 

The girl spent a few minutes running through a mental list of all the palace inhabitants whom she knew were mourning the death of a parent, spouse or child. This list included Lady Naisho and Kimiko permitted herself a small smile, forgetting the vexing problem of Ayumi's motives for the moment. 

Naisho-san is the worst gossip at court, she thought. Ma! She lives, breathes and eats rumor and innuendo. Her spy network rivals my uncle's and even the Dowager's! She has eyes everywhere and I know half her income disappears into the grasping paws of indiscreet servants. It is a very good thing that Naisho-san is fond of me... otherwise I'd have never found out about the sleeping drug!

Remembering the antics of her maid and retainer the previous night made Kimiko tighten her lips against a chuckle. I wonder how long they would have played dancing teacups if I had not grown tired of the game?

Fearing a poisoning attempt, Lady Naisho had been eager to inform Kimiko of the maid's purchase as well as Ayumi's bribery of Old Kyuri. Kimiko had been touched by her samurai's concern and impressed by Ayumi's thorough attention to duty. She had also felt a flush of love at this evidence of Izumi's devotion and care, slightly tempered with annoyance. 

I thought Izumi would try to ease me into pillowing with Denbe-san. Giving me a potion was a nice touch and very considerate of her; she was worried that I might be harmed. But there had better not be a next time! Of course, I hoped that Ayumi would intervene... which I suppose she did since I am not walking like a duck this morning, although I did have to drink the drugged tea. Yada! I wonder exactly what happened last night; Denbe-san's poem was not very illuminating but it seems that the marriage will still take place.

In his 'morning after' letter, the lord had written in beautiful calligraphy: 

"Like the dew of life 
To a parched flower 
Were your fine promises; 
But now autumn passes by 
With stilled regret." 

Kimiko understood that he regretted not pillowing with her but beyond that, his words were just that - words. It was not a rejection but nor did his poem contain any allusions to love, passion or desire, the usual courtier's themes. 

I will have to make Ayumi-san tell me what she did, the girl thought. It is very annoying that she left this morning without waiting for me to rise. And what was that nonsense about seeing to the state of her soul? She is about as devout a Buddhist as... as...as a Shinto priest.

An explosion of illumination suddenly flooded her brain. Of course! That is the answer!

Ayumi must have gone to the old Shinto shrine to question the priestess there. She destroyed the cloth because if the priestess - what is her name? Think, stupid girl! Ah... yes - Snow Fairy. That's it. If Captain Saburo suspects the Shinto sect is involved, if he believes Snow Fairy is the killer, that will cause great shame to the Emperor. He is considered the father of Shinto and the kami spirits' representative on earth; the common people believe that the Son of Heaven is the only barrier between them and disaster, which is why he must perform important Shinto rituals in addition to Buddhist rites.

If Saburo-san suspected that a member of the Emperor's sect was guilty of murder, not only would it cause our beloved Mikado to lose face, but it might cost him his throne! He has a brother by an imperial concubine.... ha! Old Lady Spider lost no time in getting rid of that one when the dying Emperor drew his final breath! Prince Takashi is in retirement at Zenpoji Temple and may have no allies at court, but he could be easily recalled in such a situation.

Seen in this light, Ayumi's puzzling action made perfect sense. 

Saburo is not a fool. He could use this information to damage the Son of Heaven... and benefit my uncle as well. If Kaika-sama is forcibly retired, his mother would have to seek employment as a nun, and Takashi would be powerless in uncle's hands. I wonder if the Captain is in Saneyoshi-sama's pay? This sounds like exactly the kind of plot that Saneyoshi would engineer.

That brought up a new question. Was the cloth a real clue? Or had it been planted at the scene? 

Ayumi-san must have believed it was real. I must learn more about Oshida Saburo. That will be my task for this afternoon.

A loud wailing snapped Kimiko from her mental exercise. 

The priests melted away with the sound of faintly jingling bells, and a new person entered the room, sweeping towards the ailing Ryoko with such energy and confidence that it was if  the gloomy atmosphere had been invaded by a glittering sun. 

With a clash of cymbals and an ululating scream, the court exorcist had arrived. 


Three Sun Moon, the exorcist, regarded his patient and absently shook a gourd rattle attached to his sash. "Have the necessary preparations been made?" he asked gravely. 

The doctor nodded. "Hai! Her bed has been covered in rice to the depth of one knuckle..." 

"You have used the special sticky rice from Kara?" Moon interrupted. "Any other type could prove fatal." 

"Of course! And the priests are ready to throw more rice as well as demon quelling beans when required..." 

"Red beans? Not the black!" 

"Of course!" The doctor began shoving vials and pots into his medicine chest. "Do you take us for fools, learned sir? Black beans would increase the poisoning effect. Any village idiot knows that!" 

"The eight-sided mirrors..." 

"Have been fastened to a nine-fold screen, the mirrors adjusted to reflect the honorable patient's body. We also have two cocks, brass bells, paper sickness dolls and your temple's No. 1 Oni-Repelling incense ready should they be required. I regret we did not have time to send for a yamabushi; those mountain priests are fierce demon fighters." 

Sun Moon drew himself up proudly. "Do I look as if I need the assistance of a filthy mountain dwelling priest?" 

The doctor gazed impassively at his spiritual colleague. Like all exorcists, Sun Moon preferred to announce his profession as loudly and flamboyantly as possible, pushing the boundaries of taste to the limit. Layers of black, dull crimson and purple brocade silk covered his lean frame, every inch woven with figures of dragons, phoenixes, bats and other auspicious symbols. The wide, exaggerated sleeves of his overrobe had seven cuffs, all in gold or silver, and long tassels depended from the points, swinging near his knees. Sun Moon's gauze cap, shaped like a box with a high front and short sides, was firmly tied to his head with a cord that passed under his lower lip. Mirrors, packets of powder, mysterious pouches, gourds, cymbals and a rooster feather fan were fastened to his obi

"Gomen nasai," the doctor said ironically, closing his medicine chest with a loud snap. "I can see that you are a very successful man. How stupid of me to suggest you might require assistance to defeat demons which are so powerful that they dare attack a member of the Dowager Empress' family! It is obvious that you will terrify them by your appearance alone." 

To himself, the doctor added under his breath, "Arrogant peacock." 

Sun Moon smiled benevolently. "It is true that I have a terrifying reputation in Hell." He glanced around. "Where is my medium?" 

A fat girl with downcast eyes, dressed no less magnificently than her master, glided soundlessly into the room. Her hair was caught up at the sides with a curved lacquer comb and the remainder allowed to fall to the floor behind her in a cascade of straight black locks. At a gesture from the exorcist, she knelt on a small cushion next to the bed and, pulling a length of white silk from her sleeve, tied her feet and legs together with a strong knot. When the devils were cast out of Ryoko and took possession of her, the medium might thrash about and the silk bindings prevented her from exposure to the witnesses' eyes. 

"I am ready to begin," Sun Moon intoned, dipping into a pouch and scattering handfuls of rice about the room. The doctor, receiving a full load of rice directly in his face, made haste to haul the medicine box upon his back and make a dignified exit, spitting grains and mumbling. 

Kimiko was fascinated. At other ceremonies, she'd had to be content with a back row seat and limited visibility. This was the first exorcism she'd attended with an excellent view of the proceedings and she was determined not to miss a single thrilling detail. 

When Sun Moon began chanting incomprehensible spells in a deep throated growl and brushing Ryoko's body with his rooster feather fan, Ayumi pushed her way through the crowded mass of onlookers at the door and glanced around, obviously seeking her mistress. 

Kimiko hissed quietly and waved her fan. The ladies kneeling next to her gave the girl a glance of disapproval but she ignored them. 

Ayumi managed to slip into the room without treading on anyone's toes or knees, and wriggled her way into the tight space next to Kimiko. "What is happening?" she asked quietly. 

"Lady Ryoko is possessed by demons," Kimiko whispered back, suddenly conscious of the sweaty, musky smell emanating from the samurai's skin. Delicious! "That is Three Sun Moon, an honorable exorcist; he is attempting to drive the devils into his medium so he can communicate with them." 

"Why? Is this Sun Moon character going to exchange eel recipes with them?" 

Kimiko playfully smacked Ayumi's nose with her fan. "Mou! Enough! Have you never seen an exorcism before?" 

"No." 

More rice rained down upon them and Kimiko brushed it off her clothes impatiently. "The exorcist will drive the devils into his medium. Then he will force them to identify themselves; this is so he can recite the appropriate spell to send them back to Hell." 

"Ah. That is interesting." 

Kimiko gave her a strange look. "Is it anymore interesting than what went on last evening?" 

Ayumi opened her mouth to reply... 

And at that precise moment, all hell broke loose.

 

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