Asuka had not exactly obeyed her father.
Instead of going home, she walked in that direction and then she doubled back. She walked through the nighttime shrine, keeping behind the trees and dark lanterns. Tiptoeing, she pressed her ear against a crack in the side of the shrine building.
Chirikai laughed. Asuka did not recognize the voice, not exactly. “Yeah, well, tell me when you co-copt a new god to your cause. Or when you find that formula for godhood. I’ll want to see it.”
There was something in the smugness, the lilting tease to his voice that seemed familiar. Asuka listened, but she could not place him, her mind humming like the crickets bounding over her feet through the grass.
“Perhaps the best thing to do is to talk with the volcano god,” suggested Heimatsu diplomatically. He stepped in front of Chirikai. “Maybe you can help him understand what’s happening, so he doesn’t hurt any more people.”
Chirikai snorted. “Yes. Invite the volcano god over for tea and poetry.” Asuka peered through the crack, watching as the man with the not-quite-familiar voice wore the cuts of darkness over his face. Bold architectural lines had bent to give him a mask. He circled the edges of the altar room. Chirikai put out candles with the tips of his fingers as he moved amongst the shadows. “The volcano’s one of the chaotic gods. My sort of people.”
Lord Shinrusu feigned ease, but his voice hung heavy with suspicion. “What would you have me do?”
Chirikai paused, his finger posed over a smoking candle. He did not think; he just felt the sleepy warmth of the smoke slinking around the planes of his hand. If he closed his eyes, he could hear the river. “I will tell you how to quell the unruly god.”
Lord Shinrusu waited in silence for the conditions.
“I will tell you how to quell that god if you give me your daughter.”
Asuka felt her breath stop in her throat. Funako, no, he can’t take her.
Lord Shinrusu stared at the fox demon as Chirikai continued to circle the altar, the air thickening with anger and desperation as the smoke swept around his ankles.
Lord Shinrusu turned away, downcast. “My daughter?”
“Your youngest,” said Chirikai. “I have no interest in the elder.”
Asuka drew away from the wall. She froze, then her eyelashes fluttered. A strange relief—not Funako—loosened her muscles like the beads on a necklace. He was asking for her.
“Asuka,” murmured Lord Shinrusu. “That is her name. She has a name.”
Chirikai reached over, dragging a finger down through the threads of smoke.
Flying bird, thought Chirikai as he looked down at Lord Shinrusu. If someone had asked him in that moment, Chirikai could not have answered why Asuka or what he would even do with the girl once he had her. He had closets crammed full of puzzle boxes, hidden things collected from his parents’ rooms and visitors, things found along the shore and squirreled away. He wasn’t crazy—he knew he would not put her in a closet or a chest, but there was that same comfort at the thought of her as holding a smooth stone. “Asuka—then I will handle your riotous gods.”
Heimatsu wondered about the girl Chirikai was to own. Chirikai had torn the episode from a storybook: the deal with a demon. It was so stereotypical he wrinkled his nose.
Lord Shinrusu stared at them through the smoke and darkness. Finished wrestling with whatever emotion he had felt at Chirikai’s bargain, Lord Shinrusu turned from them, furious and horrible as the shadows twisted his expression into something alien. Heimatsu scrambled backwards. Chirikai stopped his pacing pressed himself against the wall. Chirikai froze as Lord Shinrusu pointed at the fox demon’s throat, and with a wave, Chirikai hurtled from the altar room into the yard.
The high shaman stormed after him, billowing down the steps Heimatsu closed behind. Asuka scrambled to hide behind a shrub. She snuck out the back of the shrine through a gap in the earthen wall as her father’s voice boomed through the grounds.
“What sort of father do you take me for?” Lord Shinrusu demanded.
Chirikai crawled onto his knees and gazed up at Asuka’s father, dumbfounded. He thought of his own dad, his packed closets, his racing heart and anger he could not pin down.
Lord Shinrusu’s labored breathing slowed, his expression bled from anger to something. The lines around his eyes and his cheeks softened. He calmed, like an old man coming to a realization that did not surprise him.
Chirikai felt like he could shrivel into the ground at the look. Pity. That was pity.
Lord Shinrusu pointed at him again, but he did not hurt him. “When you are a parent with your own children, you will understand. I love my daughter more than I love myself. Never would I trade my child like a vase or coin.”
“I see,” croaked Chirikai, feeling more humiliated by the second. “If you change your mind—”
“I will not.”
Heimatsu took Chirikai by the arm. “Let’s go. Thank you for your kindness, High Shaman. We will not forget it.” Heimatsu dragged his friend from the shrine precincts.
Chirikai led the way to the Tachikawa Villa, limping through his transformation back into his noble body. Chirikai clambered over the wall surrounding the garden.
“Are we going to talk about that?” asked Heimatsu, peering at the top of the wall as Chirikai disappeared back into the Tachikawa villa’s garden.
“No,” said Chirikai.
Heimatsu jumped over the wall. “So, I take it we’re not heading back to the fortress then.”
Chirikai crossed the garden and stepped onto the deck. “I’m not.”
“This is a nice garden,” commented Heimatsu. The catfish demon bent down and rubbed one of the frogs on its head. He dipped his finger in the pond water and stuck it in his mouth. “I like this pond. What a nice pond.”
As Chirikai closed the screen behind him, sealing the garden from his bedroom, Heimatsu transformed into a small catfish, curling up amongst the rocks at the bottom of the pond to sleep. Chirikai kicked off his shoes, undressing in the dawnlight. He was too tired to think clearly.
Chirikai dropped his outer robe on the floor and noticed something about his bed, a heap of feathered blankets spread on the soft floor. A young woman in a cotton under-robe was asleep in it, her face buried in his pillow and her outer robes folded neatly beside the bed.
Managing to feel disgruntled and pleased at the same time, Chirikai crouched down beside her. He trailed his finger along her neck, watching her shiver. “If I had known you were coming, I wouldn’t have left.”
Never one to question good fortune, Chirikai leaned over and pushed her long hair to the side. Bracing himself on an arm above her, he peeled down her collar and pressed an openmouthed kiss on the back of her neck as he pressed his hips against her. They were close enough that he could pretend the lingering burning of his face and neck was lust.
She gave a sleepy mumble and rolled over, her eyes fluttering open. “You’re late.”
It was not Asuka.
Chirikai hesitated for a breath before his brain fizzled out, and he whispered against her parted lips. The words came hot and tangled from his lips. “You’re lucky I’m here at all.”
It was the beautiful, older sister. Why not?