Asuka sank beneath the water.
He looked like an apparition, the gold and yellow colors on him just as bright and clear as if she were looking at him in the air. He is not real, some kind of illusion.
Asuka inhaled the water, watching as the not-quite-a-lemon-god held his breath and grabbed at her arms. She pointed at him, bubbles exploding from her mouth, as the river spirit sided up beside her, nothing more than the pale foam of a woman who wrapped her arms around Asuka, intimate and protective, sneering at him.
He sneered right back.
Even in the murmur of the water, the river spirit’s words were clear against Asuka’s ears: “Fox demon.”
His bright green eyes widened.
Asuka held out her palm, and he had to fight a primal urge within him to reach out and take her hand. It was like reaching for his mother’s hand in the murkiness.
But, this strange young woman was not reaching out to take his hand; she was using her power. Her inhuman power.
The currents ripped over his face and tore away his leafy clothes. The water crushed his staff. His lungs burned. The muddy bottom slid under his feet as he fought, determined, fought his way forward. The sediment caught in his eyes. This was a fight, and he knew fights, and some little river spirit and shaman would not best him.
The closer he got, the more fear he saw in her over-confidant, far too clear eyes. What would victory even be? Everything seemed muddied and mixed up, but when he doubt, he wanted fear. Fear would be victory.
He grabbed her arm, and the river spirit tried to pull him away. How can I make her afraid?
When he grabbed her, he knew exactly what would terrify her. Leaning over her, the not-god smothered Asuka in a kiss. His hand slipped up to the back of her neck, the skin burning his fingers.
Soft. She was soft.
It was short, intense. She tasted like smoke and salt, correspondence ink. He tasted like lemons and the dawn over the ocean wilds. It was incredible. It blew his mind away, tearing up through the middle of a tornado and casting away. As Asuka tore away from him.
He regretted touching her because it didn’t feel like a victory, because he felt even more frightened than before. He regretted touching her—never regretted anything—even before she yanked back and the river smashed through his mouth and nose and the current dragged him to the bottom. He laughed around the blood filling his mouth as she pinned him in the mud, her hummingbird heartbeat racing through the water like music.
Asuka rose from the river and limped across the sand, acutely aware of the dumbfounded stares aimed at her. With a wave, she removed the water soaking her clothes and hair. She couldn’t hear anything around her heartbeat, but she knew the riverbank was quiet. Silence.
Funako started to clap. Asuka blinked tears from her eyes as the nobles and peasants joined the applause, and Funako ran forward to envelop her in a hug. Her mother burst from the crowd a moment later, followed by the golden palanquin of the hiwau.
She touched her lips, as if they had been marked in colored ink. Can they tell?
Her father leapt from the hiwau’s palanquin, not even waiting for the servants to lower it. The crowd parted for him; he ruled lands in Umiguni as a lord and was one of the most powerful shamans in the Capital. The young hiwau in his golden robes emerged as well, and everyone bowed.
Asuka shakily bowed.
Lord Shinrusu embraced his daughter. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” said Asuka. “It was a little messier than I expected, but I handled the situation.”
Lord Shinrusu shook with anger. “This would never have happened if those foreign frauds had not built their temple.”
“The Wildflower God gave me this,” said Asuka, trying to lighten his mood by holding up the bramble.
He smashed the bramble between his palms and applied it to her wounds. “That should never have happened. I will take care of the shrine and make sure the festival goes forward…”
Her mother hugged her, squishing her as her father finished his ministrations. “You were incredible.”
The gulf between the three of them and everyone else had saddened Asuka when she was younger. Now, she just stared over her mother’s shoulder at the crowd.
Because while everyone else stayed back, in that moment, the three of them were enough. Family was everything she had, and as much as Asuka treasured being a shaman, she treasured her sister, father, and mother more.
Asuka had sworn a lot of promises in her seventeen years, and she had always kept them. As she wiped away the lemons and ocean dawn, she swore she would always be there to save them.
Beneath the river, the not-god watched as river spirit stole the last of his breath in a string of bubbles, all jetting towards the surface. The hard orange sunset faded, and the water turned cold.
He would wait, patiently, to die. It would be fitting, somehow—a foolish, pointless gesture to a foolish, pointless life.
But, in the end, he did not. He tore free and staggered onto the bank, wearing a different form. What a mess he was. What a mess it all was.