“Princess Asuka, always a pleasure,” said Sanjō. “Your gifts are wasted in shamanism. We normally do not accept women in our ranks, but we would make an exception. Your display with the Wildflower God was quite… special.”
Asuka looked over her shoulder to see if her father was coming back. “Thank you.”
“All the same—“
Asuka waved her hands, and the monks jumped. She gave a mischievous smirk as water from a nearby pond glided between the rafters. With a turn of her wrist, the water splashed into the crack in the ground made by Heimatsu.
Lord Shinrusu returned with a chest, standing between his daughter and the monks. “Keep this gold and your idiocy to yourselves.”
“I do not appreciate your tone, Shinrusu.”
Lord Shinrusu dropped a chest on the ground and flipped open the lid, revealing gold nuggets, and the monks took the payment. Chirikai snickered, as much as a fox can snicker, and peed on the floor as the conversation continued.
“That’s Lord Shinrusu, or High Shaman of the August Ocean God of Shinrusu Province of Umiguni. I would actually prefer you use the latter.”
“Well, High Shaman of the August Ocean God of Shinrusu Province of Umiguni,” said the High Monk Sanjō mockingly. “I have bound your demons to the floor. They have sinned in this lifetime and the previous—this is a determined divine punishment. You want this temple burned down just as much as these demons”
“Never forget it,” said Lord Shinrusu. “You know full well what I think of your architectural monstrosity and invisible foreign gods. I am here to protect my people; our local jealous gods are dangerous gods. We have a volcano god to the north, a typhoon goddess to the east, a sea goddess to the south, and a forest god to the west...” He circled the monks, his eyes flashing. “What a small price you are to mitigate disaster.”
“Take them,” snapped High Monk Sanjō. He stormed away from Heimatsu and Chirikai, with an angry flick of his robes as the the spell broke. “Know that I will visit the hiwau in the morning. He will hear all about you rescuing demons.”
Lord Shinrusu bent down and lifted the demons from the ground, the fox Chirikai by his furry neck and Heimatsu by the collar of his shiny sea robes. They stumbled to their feet. Los Shinrusu pulled them towards the exit as Asuka led the way.
“Go ahead an tell the hiwau,” taunted Lord Shinrusu.
High Monk Sanjō put his hands together in farewell. “Repent and you will find peace in the Bosas’ realm, a serenity these chaotic deities can never give you.”
Lord Shinrusu walked into the street, and they continued for a few blocks in silence. Even the gravel did not crunch beneath Chirikai’s massive paws.
“Asuka, I want you to return to the palace.”
“The palace?” Asuka looked at Chirikai, and he swallowed. Does she know it’s me? “Father, I would rather not.”
“We have work tomorrow. Go home and tell your mother that everything is fine.”
Asuka paused. Then she gave a stiff bow and left them.
Lord Shinrusu led the demons beneath a gate marking the entrance to a shrine, and Heimatsu read the sign describing the place as a place of worship for a nearby river god. A stream flowed through the grounds, and Lord Shinrusu bent over to wash his hands in it before preceding.
Stone lanterns lit as they walked deeper into the precincts, revealing strips of indigo fabric had been hung in the trees, creating the illusion of a river coming down from the heavens. Little buildings no larger than a purse served as shrines to spirits, miniature rooftops covered in pebbles and acorns by visitors.
He led them to the main shrine and gestured for them to come inside. With a wave of his hand, some blue candles piled around the altar lit. Lord Shinrusu burned some incense and bowed, murmuring as Heimatsu and Chirikai entered behind him. Heimatsu took off his shoes. Chirikai tracked mud on the pale wooden floor. The fox demon was too large for the space, his tail knocking over a bowl of pine branches.
When he finished praying, Lord Shinrusu poured rice wine into white dishes and placed it in front of Chirikai and Heimatsu. They sat on the floor.
“Thank you,” said Heimatsu.
Chirikai lapped up the wine, and Heimatsu raised his eyebrows questioningly at the shaman. “Why does he get wine?”
“Foxes are servants of the Sun Goddess.”
Heimatsu winced as Chirikai glared at Lord Shinrusu, eyes burning like coals.
“Perhaps not,” said Lord Shinrusu delicately.
“Perhaps not,” agreed Heimatsu. “But isn’t the Sun Goddess outside your interest? I thought you were a shaman in the service of the ocean gods.”
“All gods are my business. Especially now.”
“I am not a god,” confessed Heimatsu. “Why now?”
“You’re not a god yet,” Lord Shinrusu said. “Certain demons can become gods, yes? Like certain humans can. You’re not like any demon I’ve met before.”
Heimatsu nodded. “I’m from beneath the ocean. To be honest, I should not have come with you. Him too.” Heimatsu nodded at Chirikai, who was crunching his wine dish, sending broken pottery shards all over the floor. “But I have never encountered that sort of magic before, and I have some questions. It has been a long time since I was last on land. What kind of shamans were those men?”
Lord Shinrusu settled back and poured himself some rice wine as he considered his answer. Heimatsu was a demon, so he did not shiver at the darkness in the high shaman’s eyes. The look unsettled him. Fury and calculation as he passed the wine bottle back and forth between his hands.
“They were monks,” Lord Shinrusu finally answered.
“What is a monk?” asked Heimatsu.
“They are foreigners, refugees from beyond the sea. These monks have flattered and cajoled the hiwau and some of the ruling families of this city. They have convinced them to tear down shrines and construct these buildings they call temples, places where they worship this thing called the Bosa.”
“A Bosa,” repeated Heimatsu. “I have never heard of such a god. What does he command?”
“Everything,” said Lord Shinrusu, skeptical. “The hiwau likes these foreign monks because their Bosa rules supreme, revealing the map of the universe. These monks have his protection. Politics.” Lord Shinrusu’s face wrinkled in disgust. “The young hiwau is obsessed with the foreign. The nobility is gripped by fascination of the origins of the universe, and desperate for approval.”
He reached over a pit fire, whispering an incantation. The fire turned black. Wind creaked and groaned around the shrine, the cold air creeping along the floor as Lord Shinrusu worked.
“The monks do rituals for him, claiming they liberate the dead.” Lord Shinrusu waved his hand, and Heimatsu saw silver images of the monks in the fire. “Which is ridiculous. They promise the noble families an escape from suffering. Which is also ridiculous.” He laughed, the smoke parting from the fire like hawk wings. “So, the real gods, our gods, turn angry at the neglect, and the crops grow foul. The demons slink down from the mountains because we are vulnerable. The monks blame men like me because I have not bowed to their idols.”
“That was the bald guy?”
“A Bosa, yes.”
“No one in the ocean, where I am from, has spoken of this.”
The older man, rubbed his eyes, suddenly tired. “I have not neglected my duties, and the ocean gods have no reason to intervene” said Lord Shinrusu, spreading his arms. The black fire died. “But the gods are stirring, angry at this city, and the humans are angry at men like me... More humans turn to the Bosa by the day. The volcano in the north is rumbling, dispelling clouds of ash and fire on our fields to the north. ” He placed a cover over the fire pit. “What should I do?”
Heimatsu turned to Chirikai, helpless. “I don’t know.”
The fox demon crept into the shadows by the alter, shrinking as he transformed into his human form. Not the body of the noble he created, but the wild form Heimatsu knew.
“It would take an act of godly chaos,” whispered Chirikai. “Old fashioned, targeted rage at the heretics. Gods don’t act like that anymore.”
“Perhaps we need a new god,” said Lord Shinrusu.