No one would ever mistake Princess Asuka for a normal girl.
She was fairly attractive, but in a strange way, as her father’s people had come from across the sea. Her eyebrows were thicker than fashion, and they were usually knitted in a serious expression as she poured over some document, her fingers dusty from handling old scroll boxes. People called Asuka utterly humorless behind her back—her ears were just as good as anyone’s, so she heard them. She had told herself when she turned thirteen that she would just stop caring about what they said. As unmoving as stone, they called her. Or some variations to that effect.
Asuka heard the rumors compare her to her mother and sister, especially when she sprouted up like a tangled vine on a fence—also around thirteen. She had her father’s chestnut eyes and skin like a wave-rolled seashell, and blessedly, she had not inherited his jaw. The rest of her face, they said, was pleasing, once the baby fat finished moving around. For years, she prodded her cheeks in a polished silver mirror, during the rare moments around the mansion when she was alone and no one was watching. Part of the ruse was that she had to appear not to care. And her mouth was perfectly local: small, narrow lips, and straight teeth, like the dolls she grew up with. She inherited her mother’s mouth and her mother’s hair, like raw silk dipped in the ink of the night sky, but when she turned thirteen, she gathered the mass of hair that fell to her waist and cut it with a sacrificial knife at the shrine. With a business-like manner, she wrapped the mass of her beautiful hair in a roll of paper and carried it, barefoot, to the family shrine.
Then, she burned it, crying spellcraft.
She burned it alongside seashells, chestnuts, and the pretty stones she collected, the doll she had never liked. She told herself she was burning it with her childhood. Asuka gathered her remaining hair and tied it into a low ponytail, and she bowed to her father, who watched her sacrifice her things in smoke to the god in a swell of power. He had been too dignified, her father, to remark on the terrible smell of her burning hair.
But despite the reek—and her teenage manifesto to not caring, not caring at all—from those shifting ashes of the burning items, the God of Water appeared. He reached out and smudged her cheek with his thumb, smiling. Asuka could not decide if he looked more like a man or a seahorse, gray as a thundercloud made of her ashes, and just as scary as he crumbled and reformed before her eyes.
“This is my daughter, Asuka,” said her father, bowing. “She will inherit the shamanship when I pass.”
The God of Water, bafflingly, continued smiling and bowed. “Inherit the shamanship...”
Asuka kept her back ramrod straight, years of royal procession and training kept her standing as her knees shook, his power pressing down on her shoulders like thousands of pounds of water pressure. The God of Water kept his gaze trained on her. “If you say so, Shinrusu,” he murmured. The god disappeared in a poof, leaving only the shells and rocks behind—the only things she had actually liked.
If you say so was lukewarm, so oddly prophetic.
The unease of the moment gave way to joy. A grin split Asuka’s face, and she whirled to face her father. “I’m good enough!”
Her father laughed. “Of course you are.”
“I’ll be the greatest shaman,” she promised him. “I will wield the powers of the God and spirits with such… respect.”
If she was good enough for the God of Water, one of the most powerful deities to ever exist, that was good enough for anyone. Asuka grew up. She told herself she stopped listening to what they—all those other people—said, and she gave herself to the gods, big and small. She gave herself, her love to her father, who led her into the dangers of being a great shaman. Asuka never learned to be modest about her abilities; but she was humble with the gods and spirits she served, which meant they tried to help her, lent her wondrous powers, and she helped them in return.
And all those people stopped gossiping about her appearance and just stared at her strange and magnificent power, gifted by that strange god who watched over their royal house and who had granted powers to their family since the beginning of things.
No one mistook her for a normal girl at fifteen, when she commanded the flood waters to recede from the paddies surrounding the Capital, and the waters listened.
No one would ever mistake her for a normal girl at seventeen, especially when she crawled, awash in blue smoke across the shrine floor. Her long sleeves dragged beside her as she lit fires more fires to burn heaps of flowers in giant golden bowls. Asuka had glimpsed a rain in a dream the night before—never normal—a winding creature like a long snake in the heavens. The capital desperately needed the rain. So, she had set up the ritual to summon the right rain god, to pull him to the capital. She had ordered musicians to play just outside, because of that murky relationship between water and sound, their fingers jumping over the strings of lutes and zithers, the hiss of a cracked flute and gasps for air.
Asuka grasped the rain god through the smoke, like an eel in a muddy creek. Her knee slid, smudging the white circles she had drawn on the floor.
The mirror between the golden bowls on the altar rattled as the smoke scratched over her skin like lover's claws. Asuka spoke at the mirror, her hands obscured in a cloud of smoke, still holding the god. “Great God of Rain, stay here awhile?”
Like a light in the fog, the face of a white snake appeared. “Who are you?” He was as white as the chalk, his voice slithering down from the mirror to the smudges on the floor and her knees.
“I am Asuka of the Shinrusu, Heir to the Umiguni Grand Shrine.”
“I’ve heard of you, Asuka,” the Rain God said. His head tilted. “Do you want to know what I heard, about you?”
Asuka swallowed, closing her eyes as they began to water. “No.”
“Not even a little?”
“I hate rumors,” said Asuka , unimpressed.
“This is a juicy one,” he teased. He flicked his blue tongue
She stared at him. “If I indulge you, will you stay?”
He nodded, his tongue licked his nose. Raindrops swelled on the surface of the mirror. “Have you heard of Retan Shitunpe? Of Chirikai?”
Asuka flipped through her, at this point extensive, mental catalogue of local spirits and worshipped deities. No. It sounded foreign, whatever it was. She shook her head. She was a careful student and did not like to admit her shortcomings aloud.
“Do you know any fox demons?” the rain god asked. “Have you seen any?”
Asuka had long since learned to not let deities baffle her with their questions or vague talk. They loved the role of messenger, even if they did not quite know the message. She watched the snake’s face for a hint. He in turn read the blank expression on her face, grinning.
“I know something, something you do not,” he continued. “There’s a fox demon coming, Asuka, my little shaman,” said the snake. He exploded into laughter, and the raindrops rolled down the mirror as he writhed around.
Asuka frowned at him.
“Fox demons are not a threat,” she told him, unimpressed. “They’re just petty shapeshifters.”
“Just a petty shapeshifter. Tell him that. Tell him that. Oh please. The son of the great one himself—I would love to see that!”
The rain god laughed again, his voice echoing as he disappeared. Asuka waited on her knees as the blue smoke blew away from the altar. The mirror was gleaming, strangely bright. The curved surface of the mirror caught the bloody-orange sunset behind her, her hair loose from its tie, a smudge of ash on her cheek. Asuka stared at her reflection. Her eyebrows had knitted together again in thought, but her eyes were clear.
Asuka watched the mirror as black clouds gathered over the sunset, rolling over the arching rooftops.
She saw her sister’s palanquin, a navy box carried by four men, stop at the gate of the shrine. Funako leapt out and ran up the path through the shrine, the shadows from the storm-clouds nipping at her heels. Like a map, a backdrop to a stage, the city unrolled behind her all the way to the sea.
“Asuka,” Funako cried, as loudly as good manners would allow. “Where’s father?”