Chirikai ran through the dark streets, over the trampled flowers of the day’s festivities.
The river gurgled down one side of the city. The houses bled into shrine grounds, which were bordered by gnarled and sacred trees. He walked through a shrine, stone lanterns flickering and dying as he arrived at the riverbank.
A gate towered over the road on the other side of the river. Few entered the Capital from this side; the road was filled with brush.
The scent of foul river foam filled Chirikai’s nostrils as he crossed the stone bridge to the gate where he knew the bodies were left. Wavering moonlight lit his path.
Chirikai knew that humans traditionally burned their beloved dead. The solitary and friendless were dumped at the river. The miasma of decomposition covered a pile of corpses in servant’s garb, and Chirikai stepped over them. Flies hovered over the road.
The humans placed the abandoned here because they believed the river had the power to wash away the corruption of death and disease. Chirikai turned silent as he saw a trio of lepers huddled under the gate on straw mats. They wore soiled face masks, the sound of their breath like the rustling of dry grass.
He was a demon. Death could not pollute him. He lifted his trembling hands to cover his mouth anyway.
One of the lepers rolled over, shivering, another scratching as he dreamed. They would die alone here. She died alone here.
Chirikai passed under the gate, watching his step, when he heard shuffling and a tearing noise. “Who’s there?”
The shuffling stopped. Chirikai peered around one of the trees. An old woman with bulging eyes stared back at him. She was hunched over the corpse of a young girl who had been stripped naked. In the old woman’s fist was a handful of black hair.
Chirikai hurled the old woman aside and dragged the girl into the moonlight. He dropped her.
The old woman shuffled over and continued yanking the hair from the girl’s scalp. “You looking for someone?” she croaked.
Chirikai couldn’t make his hands stop shaking. “Yes, a woman from a week ago.”
“No women brought in the last week, save for this one.” The crone tucked the hair into a satchel and continued with her hair-pulling.
Chirikai exhaled. “All right.”
There is still hope then. She could have tricked them and gotten away.
His normally silent footsteps turned to broken glass, prayers falling from his lips on broken stone and abandoned bodies. His breath turned heavy. He had seen a flash of red along the riverbank.
Chirikai stumbled down the bank, falling to his knees and wrapping his arms around the body like he was a child again. Her soft, red fur was matted with mud, her brown eyes glassy and open. He clutched her, and a sob wracked his shoulders.
If he pulled away, the moon and trees would see him crying, the world would see him weeping, and then it would all be true. Chirikai buried his face in her fur, and he could not imagine letting her go. He wept.
Chirikai could not imagine it, but after a time he did it. He laid her in a clean patch of sand and covered her in branches and leaves, like he was tucking her in, like she had tucked him in once upon a time. With a flick of his fingers, sparks landed on the leaves, and they began to burn.
Smoke bloomed towards the moon. Chirikai fed the flames, making them so hot that no one would see her in such a way.
He watched his mother’s ashes blow into the river.
Chirikai heard the footsteps approaching him, but he didn’t care enough to even face the intruder. He remained seated, his arms wrapped around his knees. He fingered his mother’s ashes in the sand.
With a sigh, Asuka sat down beside him. She wore rumpled brown robes, servants’ clothes, and her long hair had been tucked down the back of her dress. “You found her.”
They turned to each other. The clouds unveiled the moon, tracing her face in cool light as the lepers shifted and groaned up on the road. She was not beautiful. But she had the most intelligent face Chirikai had ever seen, her small mouth a thin line and her black eyes wide, drinking him in. Straining his tears and seeing some truth, like reading omens in the cracks of turtle shells. She was like a broken turtle shell, he decided.
Asuka arranged her hands in her lap. “Was she your mother?”
A shiver swept up his arms and down his back. “No,” lied Chirikai. “But she was kind to me.”
Asuka did not look as if she believed him. “She was a clever woman, I remember.”
Chirikai nodded in response; he would swear he could hear the rustling of wings as her thoughts flew around them, assembling reality from his lies.
“It was an unpleasant thing.”
Two deer rambled from the woods, making their way down to the riverside. Chirikai smoothed the sand, restless. “Why did you ask if she was my mother?”
“You looked like her.” She paused. “You act like her. Also, I have never seen anyone flirt with my mother fully intending to fail. I wondered why.”
All the muscles in his shoulders and chest tensed. “Why did you sneak away from your house to question a dubious character, Princess?”
She leaned back on her arms. “What will you do now?”
“Are you a demon?” asked Chirikai, his voice rough. “A goddess?”
“A human,” she answered.
Chirikai sighed loudly and flopped onto his back, as the ground beneath him finally began to tilt back into place. “That’s exactly what a god of lies would say.” He still couldn’t shake the burning haze around his head and chest. “How long does it hurt?”
“How long does what hurt?” asked Asuka.
Chirikai closed his eyes as one of the lepers started coughing, searching for a way to cover his slip-up. It took a moment. He wiped at his eyes. “Leprosy.”
“I wouldn’t know,” she admitted. “But they suffer alone until they die. What sort of pain, I cannot know. My father says that pain is relative. What might be normal suffering for a leper might be unbearable agony for me.” She leaned over and touched Chirikai’s shoulder. “Are you afraid of something?”
“Afraid? Ha, no.”
She nodded. “A polluted mind causes disease...”
“How do you know?” snapped Chirikai, feeling suddenly furious. “What do you know about anything?”
“Very little,” Asuka said simply, and Chirikai took mean satisfaction at the glimmer of fear in her eyes. Her voice trembled. “But you asked. And I do know that passions are dangerous, prone to disrupting the inner cosmos—” she touched her chest, her voice firm “—and the outer, just as much as demons and malevolent spirits. I would fear grief more. It makes us sick.”
“Your name is Asuka?”
“I’d rather not say,” she answered. “I suspect you’re a demon.”
“You’re a fool.”
She didn’t take kindly to that. “You’re a fool if you stay in this city, now that your mission is done. Did you find your sacred object?”
Chirikai’s jaw clenched. “Yes. Yes, I believe I have.” He hated her, and at the same time, he wanted to shove her into the sand and take her like a peasant girl. He could strip away her manners and those borrowed robes. Her cool arrogance and stupid noble pretensions. There would be some satisfaction in that, but his thoughts were shards of broken shell and he could not make sense of them.
Asuka got to her feet, wary of the glow in his eyes. “My father wishes you to know that should you choose to remain in the Capital, the Tachikawa Villa is at your disposal. He said he didn’t like the idea of you outside, or worming your way into someone’s bed just to have a place to sleep.”
“So he lent me a villa,” said Chirikai. “You disagree with this decision.”
“He is smarter than I am, so I trust his judgment.” She turned to walk up to the bridge. “Good evening, Master Shiho.”
“Good evening,” murmured Chirikai, and he watched her leave. It felt like bugs were crawling under his skin—he couldn’t let her leave like that, offering him pity and civility. He was a demon amongst demons, and he wouldn’t let her walk across that bridge without blowing it up or setting fire to the river. Chirikai got to his feet, his legs shaking. He snapped his fingers, but the sparks died in midair. He spun and swore as his magic whimpered beneath his skin.
“I knew what I would find here,” Chirikai shouted. “I knew it all along!”
Asuka paused on the bridge to gather her shawl about her shoulders. She glanced back at him as she covered her face and hair in the servant’s fabric. But Chirikai said nothing as she stared at him, and she turned and continued on her way, disappearing into the shadows of the city.