XIX. The Mare

The days of animal sacrifice were long gone. Asuka did not know any spellcraft that required it outside of the odd divination session, and divination—communication with ghosts and gods—had never been her family’s specialty.    

Killing something mutilated the aura of a space, making it difficult to purify. The animal’s spirit could seek vengeance, and they’d be near powerless to stop it. What information could be worth ruin, poverty, or disease...     

Why had he drowned the horse?     

There was also the sea breeze on her face, the feel of her mare beneath her legs, and the smell of wet stone in her heart. Horses, and other things, were home. Asuka had been born across the sea, a short journey from the Capital. Her father married her mother for an alliance between the hiwau’s country and Umiguni. On clear days, if she went down to the bay, Asuka could see Umiguni’s shoreline like a wandering brushstroke on the horizon.     

Asuka swallowed. One day she wished they could go back to that place of oceans, storms, and horses. She would wander the coastal marshes, chasing the birds. She would live amongst the wild horses, and come home when she wished, when the homesickness pulled. No questions.     

She reached the entrance to the shrine faster than she ever had in her life and fell against the gate.   She could not forget the look on her father’s face.     

“Princess Asuka, are you all right?”

“I’m not feeling well,” she said, gasping for breath. She couldn’t seem to calm down. “I think I’ll go home. The palace.”    

The shrine attendants rushed to get a carriage. Asuka faced the street, too shaken to bother with her fan. As she waited, she heard a familiar voice.     

“I hoped I’d find you here, Princess.”    

Asuka barely spared Chirikai a glance. She focussed on staying upright as her knees threatened to give again. 

He noticed, disturbed. Chirikai touched her arm. “Wait, what’s wrong?”    

“I’m waiting for my carriage.”    

“I’ll lend you mine,” said Chirikai easily.     

Asuka felt like she was talking through a mouthful of dry rice. “Please let me be.”     

Chirikai waved over his ox-drawn carriage. He had arranged for the gleaming gold and red vehicle and decorated ox that morning. Something in her tone made him quiet, and he drew back the curtain for her to enter with a slight bow—a relic of his mother’s manners. As Asuka stepped inside, he draped his jacket around her shoulders. She leaned into him, warm and immense with power, and for reasons he could not fathom, he felt relieved she was letting him help her.     

Chirikai gave the driver directions and sent her home. 

    

Heimatsu the catfish rolled out of the pond and flopped about before transforming.     

“You’re back earlier than expected.”    

Chirikai shrugged and picked up a brush and paper.     

“I have decided on a plan of action,” announced Heimatsu.     

“You have advice for me?”    

“I’m going to speak with this volcano god and see if I can resolve this conflict.”    

“Oh, you mean about that.”

“I owe Shaman Shinrusu a debt for rescuing us from those monks. It’s the least I can do.”    

“Apparently an attempt to seduce the man’s daughter is the least you can do. That is not a thank you note.”    

“You say attempt, I say succeed. Who do you think was in my bed last night? You?”    

Heimatsu wrinkled his nose. Then he raised his eyebrows. “If you’re that desperate for attention, I don’t have to go.”     

“I don’t want you,” said Chirikai. “That woman wasn’t even the one I wanted.”    

The catfish demon’s expression turned confused. Chirikai raised his eyebrows.     

“Never mind,” grumbled Heimatsu. “Just be safe until I return.”    

“Best of luck with your diplomacy, Heimatsu," said Chirikai, his voice revealing precisely what he thought of diplomacy.