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A Different Dream

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They say a creature emerged from the bowels of the Earth, and that this temple was built to prevent it howling. If it has been trapped there for years, no wonder its screams sound so sad. - Priest's Journal: Vol. 1




1. on a rainy night, one's mind tends to wander

Memories had their own weather. Sometimes they came like clouds that blew in and darkened the day, but sometimes they were like rain from a blue sky, and you couldn't guess where they had come from.

Today had been heavy with an approaching storm. The ladies had all been complaining at how their hair crackled and sparked when they combed it. Then, at twilight, the haze had become clouds, and the rain had swept in, and with it had come the memory of another night, long ago.

Seimei hadn't thought of this in years. She didn't know why she was thinking of it now. But as she sat in her room, she saw it as if it were happening again before her eyes.

She walks in out of the rain. Behind the blinds the stink of sickness is thick as smoke, the first breath of bad air. The girl is on her back, arched up, eyes rolling. Her heels strike the floor with a drumming sound, and it will be months before Seimei can hear the beat of a taiko drum without thinking of this. Everyone else has been told to withdraw, everyone but Seimei and the exorcist and the medium, though a few gentlewomen are still peering around the screens, reluctant to abandon their friend.

The exorcist seats himself behind a standing curtain, out of the way of the girl's flailing. He starts his prayers, but has to start again when he realises he's been chanting to the rhythm of the girl's drumming heels. One of the ladies has begun to cry. Seimei, in the silent privacy behind her own closed eyes, summons forms for protection, words for purification, knowing if they can't drive the sickness out here and now, it will keep spreading through the palace, and no one will be safe. Doman...

In the world outside her memory, twenty years later, she heard footsteps outside her sliding door and lifted her head, not startled, putting the memory aside for now. A messenger was there, presenting her with a slip of folded grey paper. Seimei opened it and read:

The astronomer gazes to the clouded sky for a glimpse of the stars; so I peep between the screens, awaiting a shining figure.

Seimei was careful to show no visible reaction for the messenger to report back. The poor girl must be very bored indeed to risk sending something like this to someone she hardly knew. Perhaps she had heard the others saying what an indifferent poet Abe no Seimei was, and hoped for an answer that would make her feel better about her own effort.

The messenger was still hovering respectfully just inside the doorway. He ought to be used to it by now, but he still didn't know where to rest his eyes when dealing with a woman of rank who sat out in the open.

"No reply," Seimei said, folding the sad little poem up again and tucking it under the litter of scrolls, charts and letters on her writing desk. "But I might call in on her later, to see whether she's feeling any better."

The messenger bowed and retreated. That should take care of the overtures of friendship.

Gentlewomen newly arrived from the provinces were always terribly homesick and lonely, and this one had to be more miserable than ever tonight. Some of the ladies and officials had taken it into their heads to escape the heat of the capital and hold a music contest in so-and-so's house in the country, and a whole company of them had left that morning. This unhappy young lady had been feeling too ill to travel, and had promised to join them later. Doubtless she regretted it now she was quite alone, and in her innocence imagined the court astronomer must also be at a loose end, with no stars to look at.

Putting away the poem had dislodged an older letter Seimei had been looking at earlier that day. The manor by the mulberry shrine had been abandoned for the better part of a year, and the elder Lord Fujiwara had written to ask whether it would be auspicious to renovate it for use again.

At the time she'd been tempted to recommend clearing the site and establishing a new temple to thoroughly purify the ground, but that wasn't the answer he'd wanted to hear, so instead she'd sent one of her apprentices to perform an inspection. She hadn't heard from him yet, and it was hard not to think of the last disciple she'd sent to Yorichika's manor. She'd been there when his body was brought up from the caverns where Lady Fujiwara had killed him.

Somewhere water was dripping from the eaves to strike the wooden walkway, and she stared through the light inner blinds at the darkness outside, trying to guess just where the drops were landing, where that drumming sound was coming from. When the breeze blew in there came the fraught, mineral scent of rain on warm earth and dry foliage. The night was metallic. Overhead, behind the clouds, the stars moved and dragged taut lines of force behind them, chiming and mischiming. It made Seimei's teeth ache.

Something flitted along the walkway beside one of the empty rooms. Something blinked in the water under the pavilion. In a storeroom a pot tumbled over, untouched, and rolled a slow half-circle. Signs and portents, harmless in themselves, but indicative. She could hear the choking sounds the dying girl had made, on a rainy night twenty years ago. Doman...

Footsteps, again, and this time she felt impatient. Once it had been a habit of the gentlewomen to summon Seimei on rainy days, to divine the locations of lost fans and combs, or say who had written a certain letter. For them it had been little more than a way to pass the long hours, a chance to stare at a woman so strange and different from themselves. While she was establishing herself at court Seimei had been happy enough to oblige, but that had been a long time ago. If the new young lady thought to entertain herself that way, Seimei would have to return a sharp reply.

It wasn't the messenger from before, though, and this time there was no letter. One of the female servants came in and immediately prostrated herself, hiding her anxious face against the floor.

"The lady's been taken ill," she said breathlessly. "We went for the exorcist priest but he's been called away to another house and won't be back until dawn. I know it's irregular, Master Seimei, but will you come?"

A premonition moved through her, like a memory of something that had already happened. Seimei rose without a word, and let the servant lead her to the Long Room where the Empress's gentlewomen slept.

Most of the partitioned sections were shadowy and empty, the ladies' possessions put away for when their owners returned. The only lanterns were at the far end of the room. Seimei found herself listening for the sound of drumming heels, of choking.

But the scene was not exactly like the one she'd been remembering. The girl was curled up under an old robe, her hair over her face, protesting feebly when the servants tried to bathe her burning forehead with a damp cloth. It was a quiet scene, ordinary.

But the ominous feeling was here, too. Perhaps it was only the combination of the rain and empty rooms, making the palace feel abandoned. The room was darker than it ought to have been with so many candles burning. Someone had lit incense to sweeten the air, but its fragrance seemed to mingle with something unpleasant to turn heavy and rank, as if an animal had got inside.

"She was suffering from a terrible headache all day," the servant explained. "The fever came on suddenly. She's hot as a kettle. Will we need to send for a medium? The exorcist was here this morning, and afterwards she said she felt a little better, but..."

Seimei let her talk. The words didn't matter. She seated herself on the veranda side, near the blinds that shivered in the occasional gusts of rainy wind. She was aware of the trees, the ornamental stream, the candle flames flickering, the pilings of the house driven deep into the earth. She adjusted her sense of them until they were balanced. Only then did she begin to chant.

It took an hour - not that it was difficult, but there was no reason to rush. She cooled the ember burning under the young lady's heart, and stilled the clanging in her head, and right at the very end, plucked out a little thread of darkness that tried to evade her. She put it in a drop of ink.

The young lady's colour had returned to normal, and she slept peacefully. Two or three of the lamps had gone out; the servants had not wanted to disturb Seimei by lighting them again. The rain had thinned to a drizzle, and all was quiet. The air had a clean smell.

Seimei went back to her own room and drank a cup of sake. Then she tipped a measure of water into the bowl with the tainted drop of ink to study the faint, cloudy shapes it made. It told her nothing; it was too weak, too far from its source. In the busy day-to-day life of the palace, it would have melted away without causing any harm, but by chance it had found a weak point, one young woman alone and unwell.

Seimei sat back against a pillar and dozed, catlike, with her eyes half-open. It had not been like the day she remembered. Nobody else would think to compare the incident of a single gentlewoman feeling unwell with the day, twenty years ago, when a plague had arrived in the capital. And Doman...

Doman couldn't cause them any more trouble. He was defeated.

Half-awake, half-dreaming, she saw a flash of raw, sticky silk, clinging to the blood-red interior of a wicker chest. Defeated, but not entirely gone. Perhaps something of him remained.

In the time it took to open her eyes, she had made her decision. She rose, changed her fine jacket and trousers for something suitable to ride in, and left word that she would be away from the capital for the day, dealing with an urgent matter. She roused the sleepy guard at the armoury and fetched her naginata from the locked cabinet. The edge was keen and shining; the red cords glowed vividly in the darkness, and spell she had bound with them still felt strong. She felt better with it in her hand.

The summer nights were short, and dawn was just breaking as she set out. She knew she left talk behind her every time she went off by herself - there goes Abe no Seimei again, without even a single servant - but the servants she preferred to accompany her would cause even more of a stir if she summoned them inside the capital. She waited until the city was behind her before calling on Goki and Zenki. Her horse was used to them and only shied a little when the demons took shape to left and right, running alongside her with tireless strength. It would be a brave bandit indeed who would dare attack her now.

"Have we been given new orders, Master Seimei?"

"Not yet," she said. "I want to pay a visit to an old friend."

2. returning to a familiar place, one's heart is lifted

The night's rain had done nothing to alleviate the heat, and as the sun rose higher, the fields and forests steamed. On a day so bright, it was hard to think of shadows, and Seimei felt that whatever the trouble was, she was leaving it behind as she rode south. All the roads were familiar, and when she first saw the walls of the house, shining in the bright sunlight, she had to forcibly remind herself that this was a visit, not a homecoming.

She sent Zenki ahead, knowing that this was one household where a demon servant might cause surprise but not alarm. A few minutes later he was back.

"I told the servants you were coming," he said. "They'll announce you, but the head of the household is away, making a pilgrimage."

That was convenient. Deference to Seimei's rank might have caused him to invite her in, grudgingly, but Kamo no Mitsuyoshi would never have consented to let her speak to his daughter alone. If he had been at home, she would have had to devise some way of getting him out for a few hours. This meant less trouble.

But there was a pattern here she didn't like. She'd left the palace half empty, and now she arrived here to find the lord gone. It gave her the uneasy feeling that, one by one, the human places of the world were emptying out.

"He went to escape the heat, probably," she said aloud. "The court ladies had the same idea. As long as the eldest daughter's at home, it doesn't matter."

When she arrived, the gates were standing open, and servants were waiting to take her horse. She stepped through the portico into a world so green it made the summer fields look dull. The last time she'd seen this garden, she'd been only a child, but in those days it had been trimmed and shaped in accordance with the most refined taste. Since then it had undergone a slow explosion. Vines and branches spilled over onto the paths. Carefully shaped trees were sprouting in new and unexpected directions. And above all, there were the flowers.

At court, you were always catching a glimpse of a lady's bright sleeve protruding from behind a screen, or a painted fan, or a robe draped on an airing rack, and here was the same sense of colourful, watchful life, as if when she turned her back the flowers might lean over and start whispering to each other. Their perfume hung in the air like a vapour she could almost see.

"What do you think?" she murmured.

"An imbalance of wood," said Goki, and she smiled at the understatement.

"I don't sense anything of Doman in it, do you? Whatever I'm looking for, I don't think I'll find it here." She dismissed them with a curling of her fist. Sorcery like Doman's had a particular stink to it, and here she only breathed the heavy scent of flowers.

A girl came hurrying around the house, along a curving path that had been hidden by foliage. Just for a moment, a trick of perspective, a trick of the green, called to mind a small figure emerging from a vast and tangled forest.

"Well?" Seimei called out to her. "Did you keep the iron spikes I gave you?"

Sakuya stopped in front of her and bowed low, only a little flustered. "They're safe. I didn't use them."

"I can see that," Seimei said, looking around the garden. Sakuya followed her gaze. The growth had happened slowly enough for her to get used to it, but now she was seeing as an outsider would.

"Utsuki takes care of it," she said. "Father sent the gardeners away."

"I see. That explains the difference."

Sakuya started to offer the usual hospitality, but Seimei waved it away. "No need to stand on ceremony. I've come to see the mulberry tree."

"Of course." Sakuya started off down the half-hidden path, already slipping back into the habit of unseeing the strangeness. "It's at the back. Father said I could plant it there, so I can see it from my room. It's growing fast. It'll be taller than me next year."

They circled the house, crossing a bridge over a little stream. Seimei knew that its course had been shaped carefully and elegantly to flow around that boulder, under that willow, but now the water was so choked with irises that it was hard to make out the curves of the bank.

Sakuya saw her looking at that, too. "She likes irises. They were her favourite, before."

They came around the corner of the house, where the mulberry was planted on its own. Here around it was the only bare earth in the grounds. Someone was going to a lot of trouble to keep the ground clear of any weeds that might smother the sapling as it grew. Seimei circled it, touching the trunk, and the soil around the roots. She sensed nothing malign, only unchecked vitality. For now.

"It seems harmless," she said, turning to Sakuya, who had been trying not to be anxious. "But it's still immature. It will be several years before it flowers and bears fruit, and its nature may become unstable. If its power keeps growing, bury one of those iron stakes among the roots. That will restrain it without doing any harm."

"Do you think she'll... change? Grow up, like a person?" Sakuya bent to touch the roots as well, though she couldn't learn anything by it. "The twins looked like children, so..."

If she wanted advice about taking in a child of unpredictable power, Seimei thought, she might have done better to ask her grandfather. Standing here, in nearly the same place, Seimei could easily picture Kamo no Tadayuki looking down at her, calm and appraising: "Your mother says she can't keep you in check any more, so I must. She says I have to teach you to act like an ordinary person, not just do what you like, or she's afraid of what will become of you."

Back then she had thought he would teach her powerful magic spells, or make her summon demons to serve him, or forbid her all that and try to teach her poetry and how to layer her gowns. Instead he had taught her to see. She had learned divination, how to read the stars, how the five elements balanced one another. He had known that all her talent was worthless if she couldn't even tell true from false.

It was what Doman had never understood. It was what had made them different. He'd always spoken with barely veiled contempt of stargazers, the astronomers at court, painstakingly plotting out horoscopes and drawing up calendars. He'd thought that was why they were weak.

That had all been before Sakuya was born, but it had shaped her life, just as the distant stars did in their indifferent movements. Did she know why her father spoke out so savagely against female exorcists, or why Doman had been exiled?

"If the mulberry spirit is guided by humans, and influenced by humans, it may behave as a human," she said finally. "Or it may not. There's no easy way to tell with these things, any more than you can tell what kind of person an infant will grow up to be."

Sakuya nodded as if she understood, but in her heart she didn't believe it. She thought the spirit was her friend Utsuki come back to life, and she had never believed that Utsuki could hurt her. Even with the scratches from Utsuki's fingernails still fresh and bleeding on her skin, she had refused to believe it.

"Where is the child now?" Seimei asked.

"She's usually in the garden somewhere, or she goes out into the woods. But she always comes back at midday to water the tree."

"We'll wait, then. Will it be any cooler inside, do you think?"

They sat on the veranda outside Sakuya's room. Cicadas whirred; the sky shimmered with a gossamer haze. A black cat stalked the raked gravel and crawled beneath a flourishing camellia bush, and Sakuya tried to think of a polite way to ask why Seimei had come. Seimei saved her the trouble.

"When I first came to court, I was only a little older than you, and I already had two demon servants." In fact, she'd been bending minor demons to her will since she was five, but Sakuya didn't need to know that. "At the time, Doman's spells had been enough to earn him a reputation as the greatest sorcerer in the capital, but when my revered master, your grandfather, named me as his heir, Doman felt threatened. To my face, he was civil. He even gave me my name. But he began to propose tests of skill, hoping to humiliate me - he always presented it as a diversion for the courtiers, but I could tell what he really wanted. I won every time." In the pride of youth, she might have said, but that would not have been honest. If she had those contests to do again, she would win them again. "He couldn't defeat me, so before long he started to cheat, and even that didn't work. In secret he was experimenting, trying to summon demon servants of his own, since that was the talent of mine he envied the most."

She paused. One of the cicadas shrilling outside had stopped. The silence thrummed in the hot, listening air.

"In those days, he would go to a grove not far from the capital, and summon creatures out of the earth. Having summoned them, he bound them with seals until he could learn how to make them obey him. The seals were strong, but while he kept the creatures there, they corrupted the good air, and turned the forest into a foul marsh. Still, it might not have spread further, only someone happened to pass the place on his way to the capital."

She could see that, too, as if she were watching it happen. The man strides between the trees. He is in a hurry; he has a message to deliver. He wrinkles his nose at a sudden putrid smell. Though the day is not cold, he shivers. Though he is young and strong and not at all weary, his steps wander. He stumbles. A moment later he is through the bad place and feeling better, but there is a shadow on him, and dark threads he cannot see are working outward from his lungs.

She said, "I had foreseen that a sickness would come, so we were ready, but he still infected a dozen people before we could confine him. The next day a young lady at the palace became ill. While your uncle and my master your grandfather did what they could to cleanse and protect the palace, I went into the forest and discovered what Doman had been doing."

Sakuya leaned forward, looking fierce. She had been shut up at home with her father for so long, she was desperate to hear about something exciting. "Did you fight him?"

"No, or he would have been defeated then. He had already fled. I banished the creatures he had summoned, and we purified the ground."

Again the stillness of the day impressed itself upon her. The cat beneath the bush tracked some invisible movement through half-closed eyes.

"Yesterday," Seimei went on, "a young lady became ill. It was no plague. She would have felt better in a day or two. But something is wrong. I have been feeling it. I thought of Doman, and remembered that part of him still lives in that girl you brought home with you."

Sakuya's face fell. She opened her mouth to protest.

"I knew you were fond of the child," Seimei said. "I thought that if it were so, you would not see it."

The cat put its ears back and flicked its tail. From the corner of her eye, where she deliberately did not look, Seimei saw a movement of dark red and purple, like the fruit of a mulberry, or the deep interior colour of a mortal wound.

"Doman taught you some things," she said. "You learned how to fight and cleanse yourself and use spell cards, and that's something. But he was tricking you, so it could hardly have suited his purposes to show you how to see through trickery."

She turned then to look at the thing Sakuya called Utsuki. For just a moment, she saw its empty expression, a waiting blankness, before it smiled uncertainly. She still did not think it was evil. It only waited to see if she would want to kill it.

She bowed her head in respectful greeting. And since it could do no harm to keep treating it as if it were the person it resembled, she said, "Utsuki, we meet again. I don't suppose you remember me."

"I think I do. It's like a dream I once had."

"How do you like living here with Sakuya?"

"It's very quiet here," Utsuki said candidly. "Sakuya says maybe we can visit the capital again someday. The have processions and festivals sometimes. I'd like to see that."

"Could you go so far away?" Seimei asked.

Utsuki looked confused for a moment, troubled. "I... I think so. I've never tried."

"Then we should certainly find out."

Sakuya watched the conversation apprehensively, waiting for some sign of hostility between them. When it didn't come, she relaxed.

"I told her all about the festivals when we were staying in the capital, in the old disciples' lodging house. But then my father heard about what happened and came to fetch me before we ever got to see any of them." Her face darkened, though she tried not to show any sign of unhappiness. "I know it was good of him to take us both in after I disobeyed him."

"As long as you gave up on becoming an exorcist, I suppose."

"Yes. He said I could come here or go and live with my sisters at my mother's house. I chose here because it's closer to the capital, and I thought, maybe my uncle... Anyway, I still practice with my fan. He doesn't mind that. But I didn't have anywhere else to go. No one else would take me as a student."

Utsuki crept over to Sakuya and leaned against her side. It was something an affectionate child might do. Seimei took it as a good sign.

"Your father has his reasons," she said. "He's not a tyrant. He's not Doman."

"I know that," Sakuya said in a low voice. It wasn't that she hated her father. She was just seeing her life, all her long life, here. Maybe a trip to the capital once or twice a year to see a festival; maybe the occasional pilgrimage to some remote temple, to sit behind a screen while a monk intoned the sutra her father had made offerings for; maybe, one day, visits from men who didn't mind that she'd once tried to be an exorcist. And in between, the dreary days with nothing to occupy her mind. That was what she saw, and she dreaded it.

Seimei, in her turn, could see Mitsuyoshi marching through this very garden, just a little younger than Sakuya was now. She could see him with his fists clenched, eyes full of angry tears, inarticulate with fury that an interloping girl should be better than him and be praised for it. Every time he'd struggled and she'd excelled, he too had seen his own future changing into something unrecognisable. He and Sakuya were more alike than either of them realised.

"You could talk to him," Sakuya said desperately, when the silence went on and she couldn't suppress her hope any longer. "He'd have to listen. You could - "

She wasn't bold enough to ask outright. She didn't have to.

"It's not my place to interfere," Seimei said, "and I don't have time for another apprentice."

Although it wasn't meant unkindly, Sakuya's head jerked as if from a blow. She coloured, but whatever she might have said then, she kept it back. The cicadas threaded the air with their song.

"I have something," Sakuya said finally. "I didn't know what to do with it. It's no good to me."

She disentangled herself from Utsuki and went inside. She seemed a long time coming out. When she did, she was holding a bobbin of undyed silk thread.

"My father has a silk farm over to the east. I got them to spin this. It's from the cocoon. The final cocoon."

"Yes, I see," Seimei said, fascinated. She could feel the pull of it from here, all the lives twisted up in its pale fibres.

"The cocoon broke when Utsuki came out, and you're supposed to keep the cocoons intact if you're going to make silk from them. Usually they boil the silkworms alive, did you know that?" She made an expression of distaste. "They couldn't save enough to make anything big, but you could... I'm sure you could find something to do with it. Doman had robes made out of the special silk from the shrine, and they protected him from spells."

She looked away as Seimei took the bobbin from her. She'd been holding on to this in the hope that she might be able to use it someday; now she was giving it up.

"I'll have to take time to think of a fitting use for this," Seimei said. "Thank you for giving it to me."

Her visit was at an end. Sakuya stayed quiet as they walked back around to the front gate. She only raised her eyes for a moment to look at the road leading back to the capital, and then she turned away again, as if it hurt to look. Nothing Seimei could say would console her.

"I'll tell your uncle you're well," she said instead. "He'll be glad to hear it."

3. sunset over a derelict house, the end of summer

The message was waiting for her when she got back to the capital. Nobody had known where to find her.

Her disciple Tokiyasu was alive, and that news came as a relief. He'd been all this time in Fujiwara's mansion, trying to drive out the ghosts and tempests that had gathered there in the year it had been abandoned. But, he said, an ill atmosphere persists, which my small skill cannot counteract, and so if you find yourself at liberty your servant humbly requests...

And so on, and so on.

"It's too late to set out tonight," she said, to no one in particular. The ladies' hall was empty now; she could feel its darkness a few rooms away, like a chill against her side. An ill atmosphere persists...

She should have gone herself in the first place. Tokiyasu was too cautious, always afraid of stepping past the point of duty, afraid to test his power against a stronger opponent.

That made her think of Sakuya. She smiled a little, imagining Tokiyasu's reaction if she'd come home with a fierce, outspoken girl as her new apprentice.

"That might have been worth seeing," she said, "for all the trouble it would cause."

She lay down to sleep, but sleep didn't come easily. People kept walking past outside; she pictured someone pacing, trapped in a maze of empty rooms, endlessly searching. She thought Doman came walking up the steps of the palace and along its halls, his robe of crimson silk leaving a long red streak wherever he went. Of course, she thought. It's made from the dead, after all.

She woke unrested. The light was climbing slowly up her blinds. She heard the birds singing, but otherwise, silence. At this hour there should have been messengers coming and going, servants beginning their day's work, lovers slipping back to their own beds. Only the sky's void of silence bled down with the light. It was as if she'd woken to an empty world. She imagined cottages deserted, cities and towns, boats rocking in the harbours, hearths growing cold. She imagined ghosts creeping like mist back to the shells of their old dwellings, and monsters nesting in the emperor's chambers.

These were ill-omened thoughts. She covered her eyes with one hand and cleared her mind, until she heard someone calling the hour outside, and a baby crying in another wing. Only then did she feel it was right to get up. The first thing she saw, when she went to the cabinet for her clothes, was the bobbin of silk on top of it. The thread had its own soft gleam in the morning light, like moonlight shining through clouds, but when she closed her eyes, the impression it left was red.

She packed the silk up in her provisions bag with her other supplies. This time she left detailed instructions with the servants in case any of them needed to find her, in case anything went wrong. As she rode out with the sun at her back, she felt she was going the right way.

It was much further than to Sakuya's house, nearly a full day's ride, and she couldn't set the pace she might have liked without tiring her horse. She checked her arsenal of spell cards, and the sharpness of her blade. She opened her awareness to the life all around her: the people in the fields and villages, children climbing trees to watch her pass from between the branches. The further she rode, though, the more the fields turned to meadows and thickets and woods, and the smaller the settlements became, the greater the distance between them. She had to leave the main thoroughfare to turn westward, and after that the path became steeper, narrower, rutted and stony. The people she sensed evaded her, moving at the edge of her perception.

Fujiwara no Yorichika must have offended one of his older brothers once, to end up out here. Perhaps he had been too ambitious.

Tokiyasu had been sheltering in an old hermit's shack on the edges of Fujiwara's land. After a week there he looked very sorry for himself, rumpled and unshaven - he was a man who liked his comforts. Nevertheless, he greeted her with his usual elaborate courtesy. She sent Goki and Zenki ahead to scout, and Tokiyasu barked orders at his young servant boy, who raced about quick as a monkey, seeing to Seimei's horse, then fetching food and sake and cushions and whatever else was called for. Only when they were both seated, and the boy had abandoned his frantic activity in favour of gawking at Seimei from just outside the doorway, did Tokiyasu begin his report on the condition of the manor.

It was much as she'd expected. It had been left empty for a year, so aside from everything else, it was in poor repair. One of the pavilions had collapsed, and last autumn's bad storms had damaged the roof. It had been full of ghosts, and there had even been one or two gaki still lurking inside, wild with hunger but too weak to be much threat. Tokiyasu had fought and defeated them; he was proud of himself. In the humblest language, he boasted of the battles he'd won. He spoke also of the beautiful silks and screens and lacquered furniture that had been abandoned and were now ruined by the damp.

"I did not see much that I thought worth saving," he said. "Does Lord Fujiwara really mean to restore it? A place such as this... the expense will be enormous, and it's so remote, I can't see why anyone would want to live here. Its reputation will never be good now. Would you consent to spend a night in such a place, Master Seimei? I would not."

Seimei smiled opaquely and sipped her sake. Behind her, the servant boy let out a shriek, and Tokiyasu jumped to his feet, crying, "What is it? What is it?"

"Goki and Zenki have returned," Seimei said, and rose as well. "I can tell you've been very diligent. You were right to call on me. I'll take it from here."

"Now?" Tokiyasu blurted out. He cleared his throat. "It's almost sunset. Surely you'll rest the night with us. We can continue the investigation tomorrow."

"I prefer to start immediately." At his expression, she couldn't resist adding, in a very solemn tone, "If I do not return, I trust you to seal the manor and take the news of my death to the capital."

Tokiyasu's face went pale, and he thrust his hands inside his sleeves to conceal their shaking. He looked so devastated she felt sorry for teasing him.

"Courage, Tokiyasu. Do you have so little faith in me? A just cause has the blessing of heaven."

She thought he was composing in his head the poem he would write about this moment, if she died. It was a pity she would never be able to read it. Tokiyasu was rather a fine poet.

Goki and Zenki fell in on either side of her, a little behind, as she started for the manor gate. "Master, the mulberry is still subdued," Goki said. "The iron spikes are in place, but the curse on the manor persists. There must be another cause."

"I feel it," she said. "But I can't tell where it's coming from. The mulberry tree and Doman's experiments are clouding the air."

"There is a powerful seal still in place outside the manor's western gate," said Zenki. "It blocks the road from north and south."

"Yes, I remember that. He once claimed the seal was to keep out a demon. I wonder if that was true - I think more likely it was people he wanted to keep out. Might as well start there, though."

The manor's grounds were as overgrown as the ones at Sakuya's house, but here the plants grew in strange, twisted shapes, their leaves prematurely withered, or covered in dark spots. There was an unpleasant smell about even the flowing water, and near the lotus pond it clotted the air. All the irises were dead. The setting sun tainted everything with its unwholesome red glow, everything but the threads of silk still clinging to the dark boughs of the remaining mulberry. They twinkled blameless as dew.

When she approached the tree, before she even touched it, she could feel how different it was from the one growing outside Sakuya's room. Malice was in every cell of it, and the wounds where the spikes were driven in bled and oozed dark red sap. If Sakuya had been here, she might have set this one on fire, too. Now she stood beneath it again and compared it to the freshness and innocence of Utsuki's tree, Seimei could not entirely reject the idea.

But Goki was right: this was not the source of the ill fortune that still lay upon the manor. She went on, keeping an eye out for movement in the shadows, and came to the western gate just as the sun vanished behind the mountain. She stepped out onto the road, and stood with the gate at her back.

Here was Doman after all. If she closed her eyes he would be beside her. Here was his territory, his sorcery lingering like a stain. Here was his dark authority, radiating outward from two fences made from sticks and sacred rope. At a glance the seals looked flimsy; the winter storms ought to have blown them to pieces, but still they stood, a year after he had died, blocking the road in both directions.

It looked as though this road had been important, once. Running past the manor it curved south-east, towards Nara, and north, where it would probably join the road to Tottori. Now it was cracked, overgrown and peculiarly still, as if Doman's seal kept even the wind from passing.

Untangling the spell was a matter of moments. It was powerful, but not complicated. What was less clear was where to go next. Seimei was on the point of sitting down to work a spell of divination when a slow gust of wind came whispering down the road from the north, and carried to her a smell she recognised: bitter smoke, old blood, an animal musk that made her hackles rise in primitive warning. From the change in their stances, she could see Goki and Zenki were having the same reaction.

"Perhaps Doman wasn't lying about the demon after all," she murmured, shifting her naginata to a more comfortable grip. "We'll soon find out. Goki, follow close behind me. Zenki, ahead."

They didn't need to be told. Now she had lifted the seal, the wind blew steadily from the north. They had not gone far before Seimei saw the cracks spreading up the outer wall of the manor. They might have been caused by an earthquake, but she didn't think so. Perhaps Doman had been experimenting, and had either awoken something or summoned it.

"Master Seimei, here is a way underground," Zenki announced. It went directly under the foundations of the manor wall, and was well hidden by bushes and vines. It led down into the darkness. The smell was strong here, more in her mind than in the air.

There were no steps; she had to climb down through the hole into the dank passage underneath. At first it was loose earth, held together by the roots of trees that had been cut down to make way for the manor. The floor sloped down, and soon the earth gave way to rock, the red-stained rock she remembered from when she'd been hunting for Doman. She couldn't guess whether these caves connected to the others; the way twisted and turned so often that even her innate sense of direction began to falter. The bad air grew thicker, and from time to time she heard a sound that might have been wind moaning through gaps in the rock - might have been, but wasn't.

Deeper they went. In her mind's eye she saw Doman pacing alongside her. He had been here, searching for answers, for anything that might give him an advantage over her.

"We are beneath the temple," Goki said, at her shoulder. She was surprised to think that they had come so far underground. Distance and time were becoming difficult to judge. Now the caves began to show some signs of human visitation: rough steps and handholds carved in places where the way was steep, lantern brackets in the walls, wooden supports to reinforce the ceiling. It all looked very old. The howling came again, very close, and it was impossible to mistake that sound for the wind any longer. From the way it echoed, she guessed the tunnel opened up ahead, into a cavern.

She put her lantern down on the step behind her and signalled Goki and Zenki to wait, while she went silently ahead. Her eyes adjusted little by little to the faint light. She stopped when she felt the air change.

She could just make out another seal here across the opening, much older than Doman's. The sacred rope had rotted away to clumps of black fibre like algae. A touch, and it collapsed.

The beast sat in the middle of the cavern, three times as tall as a man, with short legs and long arms, and two broken horns. It sat; it could not rise. An iron stake had been driven through one of its hands. It faced the doorway, but its head hung low. It had given up on looking in that direction. Even as she stood there it let out another long, low, groaning howl, but if it had ever known how to speak, it had forgotten.

It had been here a hundred years, two hundred, five hundred. It had been here forever. They had wounded it and trapped it and built the temple overhead to soothe it with prayers and sutras, and so it had slept, though its sleep must have been pained and restless. Then the temple had fallen to the mulberry sickness. The prayers had stopped, and the sacred, somnolent weight of it had changed. The creature had woken and known it was alone.

All these years, even in its sleep with the temple above, the creature's pain must have been seeping up through the earth, into the water and the air, and into the roots of the mulberry trees. Its agony and their malice kept echoing back and forth, feeding each other. Doman had used the power of that grudge to fuel his own spells. And when the manor had been abandoned, and the mulberries silenced, the darkness had come questing out in search of life, until a tiny fragment of it had reached as far as the capital, and found one girl, homesick, ill, alone.

This had been badly managed. If the creature threatened the manor, the people should have killed it at once, not left it trapped here to trouble future generations. Now it was for her to do what they should have finished decades ago, and make it as quick as she could.

Still moving without a sound, she circled around behind where the creature sat. Her stance was light, ready to leap aside at an instant's notice. If the stroke of her naginata did not kill it at once, the spell card she had ready would summon a fire with an all-consuming ferocity.

She readied her blade, rose on the balls of her feet - and it was Sakuya's voice she heard, saying, She hasn't been outside the manor. We can't let her die. Too kind, from inside her own cocoon, Sakuya, saying, They boil the silkworms alive, did you know that?

Her hand did not tremble, but for an instant she hesitated, and in that moment the creature knew she was there. It turned, blind, groping, and she sprang back out of the way, and was moving for the spell with hand and mind, when all at once...

The world was empty. She felt it spread like a ripple, and knew it was an illusion, but knowing did not make it easier to see through to the truth beneath, not even for her. Outward from this place, the desolation spread. The world was dry and dead, all withering to dust; the world was dark and motionless beneath a sky without stars; the only sounds were the echoes of ancient prayers and distant bells, which the wind would not surrender but would carry for a thousand, thousand years, since there was nothing to replace them.

So the caged creature dreamed, knowing nothing but solitude, cut off from light and its own kind, cut off from any sound but what came drifting faintly down from a world it could no longer imagine. But now here was this new thing, swift and alive, full of memory and potential. Even if it was only another dream, at least it was a different dream.

The illusion passed. Seimei lowered her blade, and released the spell she'd been holding in the back of her mouth. It would have been the sensible thing, but she couldn't do it now.

"You are so stubborn," she said to the memory of Sakuya. "Do you know how long it's been since anyone tried to change my mind about something? This is going to cause all kinds of trouble." And to the beast, she said, "I give you this warning: if I free you, and you kill me, you'll have my apprentice to face. He's a man, so as you can imagine, he's much more fearsome than I am."

She reached into her travel bag and found the silk. She drew out a thread, cut it on the blade of her naginata, tied it into a loop and cast it over the beast's shoulders with a murmured spell to cease movement. The stake driven through its hand was very old and rusty, almost fused with the rock underneath.

"Goki," she called, "go quickly now and see if you can find a pair of pliers in the manor. Zenki, the lantern, if you please."

Goki went, and came back successful, and with a whisper of fire to soften the iron, she managed to work the spike loose at last. She took up the trailing end of the silk and tugged it free, winding it back around the spool.

She said to the half-dazed creature, "You can't stay here any more, but if you follow this passage out to the daylight and cross the road into the forest, nobody lives there. Keep away from the dwelling places of humans and soon enough you'll slip out of their world and back to yours. It still exists. You just haven't been in it."

***

The moon was well up when she pulled Tokiyasu from his sleepless bed. "I hope you're well-rested," she said, taking in his hollow eyes and waxen pallor. "We have a lot of work to do, but I believe we can purify the manor after all. I'll tell you all about it on the way."

As she waited outside, listening to the sounds of him scrambling to get ready, she added idly, "You've come so far in your studies, I think it's time I took on another apprentice. What do you say?"

4. homecoming

It was raining again when, three days later, she stepped back into the verdant gardens of the Kamo house. This time, Mitsuyoshi was there to meet her. It looked as though he'd just arrived back from his pilgrimage; he was still in travelling clothes.

"I know you've been visiting my daughter," he said when he saw her. "Not like you to sneak around behind people's backs. I hope you're not expecting to see her again."

She gave him her impenetrable court smile. "I only visited once. Don't blame Sakuya - she didn't know I was coming."

He folded his arms and glared, but there was a sag to his shoulders. She'd expected fury from him; she'd been thinking he would be the same person he had been twenty years ago. But he was weary from his journey, anxious about his daughter, and he was becoming old. He didn't have her vigour.

"Come, Mitsuyoshi," she said more kindly. "We're almost brothers, aren't we? A quarrel between brothers is a bitter thing. I wish we could have a truce."

He looked as if he wanted to spit at her feet, but he was a little afraid of her, too. She thought now he always had been.

"What do you want?" was all he said.

"Sakuya needs a proper education. You of all people should understand that. You know a little knowledge is more dangerous than none at all, especially when it's taught by an unscrupulous man. You can't leave her half trained and expect things to turn out for the best."

"Telling me what I can't do in my own household? You've always been arrogant, Seimei, but - "

"I ask you as my mother once asked your father," she said. "It will become impossible to keep her in check."

"Is that so?" He gave her an angry, insolent sixteen-year-old look that she remembered well. "What keeps you in check? You just keep rising and rising. My father said he'd teach you to act like an ordinary person. You never have, you never will. You couldn't if you tried. It's not in your nature."

"That's true."

He looked taken aback, but quickly recovered himself. He'd been having this argument in his head for years, she thought. "And now you want me to give my daughter over to you, so you can make her just as bad."

Seimei laughed at that. "Sakuya couldn't become like me. That's not in her nature. But you're wrong to think your father didn't teach me anything. Think of what I might have been without him - just as powerful, no more ordinary, and unable to see the outcome of my actions. Think of what I might have done, with the best of intentions, if he hadn't taught me judgement."

That got him quiet. For a few moments, she was silent, letting the idea soak in. In the grey-green shadows behind the shrubs, she sensed a blur of dark red, a listening presence. She didn't mention it to Mitsuyoshi. Utsuki would certainly tell Sakuya everything, which would give Sakuya time to marshal her own best arguments, in case they were needed.

"I know what you're thinking," she said. "You don't want people to hate her the way you hate me. She'll suffer from it more than I ever did, and perhaps she won't have the ability to back it up. But she's suffering now. Don't you remember what it's like?"

Mitsuyoshi turned away and drew in a long breath. Again, she expected his anger, but when he spoke, his voice was heavy. All he said, by way of admitting defeat, was, "Let's not discuss this in the rain."

***

Seimei came back to the palace at evening the next day. It was still warm, but the fierce heat had broken; soon the summer would give way to autumn's drizzle and autumn's storms. It was past time to start making arrangements for the Chrysanthemum Festival and the first fruits banquet. Utsuki would be looking forward to the dancing. Sakuya would be looking forward to all of it.

The party that had gone to the country had also returned that afternoon. Seimei arrived just in time to see the last of the gentlewomen's empty carriages being pulled from the courtyard, and when she stepped inside the building was once again full of their friendly talk and laughter and activity, flurries of messengers running back and forth with letters. It was so pleasant to be back in the hubbub that for a moment Seimei considered joining in, and sending a late reply to the young lady she'd healed; she even got as far as jotting down a line, but the next day she supposed she'd find her attempt had been passed all around the ladies' apartments and gossiped over endlessly. So she sat down at her writing-desk instead, and picked up the scroll she'd left off studying on the night of rain when the memory had come.

People said of her that she was aloof, too fond of solitude. As if it were possible to be alone here. One of the palace cats, knowing Seimei to be a reliably quiet and courteous companion, came snaking in around the blind and curled up on a stack of woven cushions. Outside, a man who hadn't yet tired of music struck up a tune on a shrill flute; a moment later another joined in, and the ladies all stopped talking to listen. In the country all around the commoners were going home, stepping down from their fishing boats, stoking up their hearths; and bells tolled in the temples, and their echoes passed away like dreams.