The next morning, Princess Asuka left her bedroom, toying with the poem Shiho had sent. She had never received a poem from an admirer before. With good reason, she admitted to herself, but she had enjoyed the experience.
Shiho’s poem had been passable. She stopped her lips from doing more than tweaking at the corners.
Love affairs and marriages were built on poetry and desire. Asuka’s hand had shaken when she wrote her response, which anyone would concede was a finer poem even though his penmanship had been superior.
He’s had more practice than you.
Shiho had sent the poem. A supernatural creature had tried to bargain for her. Her instincts told her they were linked.
They’re connected, her mind warned. They’re likely the same source of devilry.
She knew it was all trouble, but all the same, she clutched the poem and walked the hall with light steps. She was smart enough to see things coming; she had always been confident, but it had been tempered by a caution as hard and deep as glaciers, until that crack appeared beneath the river’s surface. Despite being tired from the adventure at the Bosa temple and the eavesdropping at the shrine afterwards, she smiled to herself. She flexed and unflexed her hand—she could handle whatever he was. Whatever this was.
She was Asuka of the Shinrusu, smarter and more powerful than whatever god was lurking around their halls. Arrogance, her father said, was more dangerous than danger. But he could not move oceans, so.
Asuka was just tucking the note into her sleeve pocket when her older sister, stumbled onto the threshold from the garden, her hair tied back with a bit of cord, her robes slightly askew. Funako stuffed a loose chunk of robe in the sash.
“Funako, good morning,” greeted Asuka.
Funako looked up at Asuka in a daze. “Asuka, it hurts to walk.”
“I can see that.”
“Would you help me up?”
Funako kicked off her shoes as Asuka pulled her sister up into the entrance hall from the low area for guests to remove their shoes. Their mother hurried around the corner. “Funako, where have you been all night?”
“Having a transformative life experience, Mother. I think I’m done with men from the Capital.”
Asuka scowled. “Don’t tell me you went to go see Minister Bo again. You won’t find any sympathy here.”
Their mother drummed her fingers against the doorway, a smirk spreading across her face.
“He was incredible,” Funako told her mother, excited.
“Oh,” said Asuka in a small voice. Done with men from the Capital. “Oh.”
“You know little or nothing about his background,” said her mother, “and if you want to keep the affair going, I recommend you get back before dawn the next time. If you’re caught out three nights in a row, we’re stuck signing marriage paperwork.” Her mother rolled her eyes. “Be more discreet please.”
“I have to go to Father’s,” said Asuka as her heart tied itself in a painful knot. “I’ll see you two later.”
Asuka slipped on her shoes and hurried out the door, waving at her sister’s palanquin-bearers before they could carry the palanquin away. She opened her fan to cover her face and stepped inside.
Her father’s palace was twenty minutes away, and Asuka spent every minute of the journey regretting bringing Shiho’s stupid poem. She kept peeking around the curtains, looking for the ideal place to crumple it up and toss it, but the roads were too crowded and she didn’t want to risk being seen. She wrung it in her hands.
Maybe it was meant for Funako. Of course, it was.
She crumpled the sweaty paper in her pocket, all hopes of saving her first romantic poem gone. It was such a stupid thing to be upset about. But telling herself that did not make it easier.
I’ll burn it in one of the fire pits when I get to the shrine.
The Shinrusu Sea Shrine was located on the bay. Asuka smelled the ocean through the curtains. The palanquin stopped, and Asuka descended with her fan open, her orange robes blowing in the wind.
The shamans and shrine attendants dropped to their knees at the sight of her. The servants held baskets of blue clam flowers, which were falling from the trees in the shrine. She continued through a series of empty blue doorways without doors to the center of the shrine. Two streams flowed alongside her path, carrying the clam flowers down to the ocean.
Asuka frowned, clenching the note in her pocket. The sacrificial fire pits had been filled with water.
Roof arches swept up from the treetops. Miniature shrines to lesser gods glowed with candlelight from the middle of an artificial lake. As two attendants stepped aside, Asuka bowed and entered the hallowed halls of the closest Sea Goddess.
Her father burning incense before an altar larger than most homes, the altar built atop a heap of unusual rocks, coral, seashells, glass, and pieces of broken ships. He smoothed his hand over the wood, his gaze distant.
“Father, why are the fire pits filled with water?” Asuka’s face fell as she took in his exhaustion and crumpled robes. “Have you been here all night?”
“I had the pits filled because I am practicing more powerful magic.” He smiled, but it was tired. He hugged her. “I am glad to see you.”
“And I you, Father,” said Asuka, her heart clenching. It had been a long time since he had embraced her. She remembered his furious defense of her last night.
“High Shaman Shinrusu?”
He reluctantly released her and hurried to the entrance. Asuka saw Minister Bo leading a mare with a golden coat. Her father bent over and cooed in the horse’s ear as the beast stirred, nervously stomping its hooves.
“You truly have the most beautiful horses in the Capital, Minister Bo,” said Lord Shinrusu.
The minister laughed, his handsome face flushed at the compliment. “It comes with the territory, High Shaman. Get it? Because my taxes are paid in horses?”
“I believe so,” he replied gravely turning to Asuka. “Do you recall how to perform an animal blessing and purification?”
The horse bucked and backed away. Minister Bo hissed, pulling on the reigns. “I’m sorry. She normally isn’t like this.”
“I am sure she’ll do beautifully once she settles down.”
Minister Bo rubbed his hands together. “Would you mind if I watched?”
“Not at all.”
Asuka lifted a piece of white driftwood from the altar and tied a string of seaweed through a hole in the end. Then she attached a strip of paper. With her left hand she held the driftwood, and with her right, she pressed her pointer and middle fingers against her eyes. When she opened her eyes, it was as staring through a piece of blue glass. The simple spell allowed her to see auras and impurities, presences that would interfere with further spellcraft.
Impurities drifted across her vision like shadows as she approached the horse.
“She is faster than I am,” said Lord Shinrusu proudly.
Asuka made a noncommittal noise.
With a few deft swipes, she wiped away the clouds of darkness gathering at the flank and hooves of the horse. The white paper turned black, like squid ink, as it absorbed the natural impurities. She cast the paper into one of the saltwater pits and returned the seaweed and driftwood to the altar, the darkness now gone from the horse.
“Well, thank you for letting me watch. I wish you the best.” Minister Bo bowed and handed the reigns to her father. “High Shaman Shinrusu, Princess Asuka.”
“Asuka, please show him to the entrance. Afterwards, if you could help with the purification with the clam flower trees at the front of the shrine, I would appreciate it. I will not need any more help here.”
Asuka bowed and kept her thoughts to herself but her lips twitched at the idea of listening to Minister Bo’s prattle. She gave her father a look, then led the minister away.
Fortunately, Minister Bo seemed intimidated by something in her expression; they walked in silence to the entrance. It made Asuka a little depressed, that Minister Bo wouldn’t talk to her. Not that he really ever had anything to say, mind you, but he talked an awful lot with her sister and mother.
Asuka frowned. I forgot to destroy that poem.
“It’s always a pleasure, Princess Asuka.”
Asuka bowed in return, her mind elsewhere. The minister left, and she strode back to the path leading to the inner shrine.
I can banish it in one of the saltwater pits, she thought. It was overkill to be sure. Perhaps an abuse of power, but it would help cleanse her aura. Instead of burning, the saltwater would tear the paper to pieces and crush even the idea of it.
She paused, almost at the end of the path, as the mare screeched.
Asuka crept behind a tree, looking out at the inner shrine. Her father dragged the mare by the reigns, whispering spells under his breath. The horse stomped and panted, silent. He gave another jerk, and Asuka saw the destination just as the mare did, her eyes widening.
He wrenched the mare forward. Her legs folded, snapping against the walls of the saltwater pit, and her head flailed about, unable to make a sound, as she fought beneath the surface of the water as she began to drown.
Asuka’s knees gave out and bile rose in her throat.
He placed a wooden cover over the pit, and then he lit a candle and placed it on the lid.
Asuka turned and ran.