XXII. The Phantom Lilies

“I will ride with you and think about it.”

Chirikai grinned. “Good choice.”

They entered the carriage. Asuka pushed up the red blinds to peer out the window. As they approached the river, she turned to Chirikai. She wondered if he saw he as a conquest, or a bizarre item. Some men and women did. 

Chirikai eyed the lines of dust on her robes, the way her fingers attempted to rub a headache from her temples. 

“If you’re looking for an affair,” she said finally, “you’d best find someone as available and handsome as you then. I can help you make a list...”  

“I think I’m handsome enough for the both of us,” Chirikai declared.

“What about my sister?”

He shrugged. “This is different.”

Asuka sighed in relief. “I’m glad.” 

The journey passed in companionable silence. Asuka knew that Chirikai was watching her, but she stared out the window. She wondered what sort of friendship he wanted, if he was not finding what he was looking for in his trysts. Even the if the poetry was beautiful, the lovemaking fun, sometimes Funako came home in the morning upset, even if things went well.

No, she thought. This isn’t like that. 

The carriage stopped in front of one of the small riverside shrines. Chirikai put a package under his arm and retrieved a blanket. Instead of going through the gate, Chirikai led Asuka onto a side path around the edge of the shrine. 

Around back was an abandoned pond, which was slowly being reclaimed by nature. Tiny cream-colored lilies, each no larger than her palm, poked their blossoms up from a patch of standing water. Algae grew around the rim of the pond. The moonlight cast the landscape in black and white with patches of green. Silver light caught in Chirikai’s hair as he held open the gate.

Magic whispered in the air, and Asuka gave the lilies a knowing smile. 

Chirikai glimpsed her small smile, gone in seconds. He wondered if she knew. He wondered if she knew he was wondering, and there was something delightful in that tangle of wondering because she was such an intelligent shaman and so powerful. He would not engage in this circuitous snarl of thoughts and wants—her wants, his wants—and it was all so in that moment that he did not have to think about the future. He did not have to think about the past.

Someone had laid down planks of wood beside the water. Chirikai spread the blanket from the carriage and sat down. He unwrapped the package under his arm, revealing a small box of pastel sugar animals. 

“I loved these as a child,” said Asuka, sitting down beside him. “My mother ordered one of the molds from a traveling merchant so that the servants could make them, but they never came out properly.” 

Chirikai picked up one of the foxes and bit off its head. 

My mother stole them. 

“My mother stole them,” said Chirikai casually. He glanced at Asuka after he said it. Asuka helped herself to one of the candies. 

“I thought you were from the Frontier,” Asuka said gently. “That’s an awfully long way from the Capital confectionaries.” 

Chirikai chuckled, though it hurt because of the lump in his throat. 

Not so far for a demon as fast as the wind.

“She traveled a lot.” 

Asuka nibbled on a bird. “I would like to do that one day.”

“Steal candies? We can make that an activity tomorrow.” 

Asuka smiled. Chirikai busied himself with the candy, selecting a lion at the bottom of the box. Asuka helped herself to another candy, and they sat in silence. 

“If you were a fox demon…”  She trailed off, sly, leaning forward to pluck a leaf. 

Chirikai kept a straight face. “If I were a fox demon.”

“What would your handwriting be like?”

“What?” 

“You know, calligraphy.”Asuka poked him. “Do you have a brush or something?”

“We’re at a pond,” said Chirikai. “Why would I…”

Asuka jumped to her feet and handed him the leaf. “I’ll find one. Don’t worry, I’ll be right back.” 

Chirikai watched, unsure if he should be frightened or amused, as Asuka opened the back door to the river shrine and boldly strode inside. A few minutes later, she snuck out of the shrine with her sleeve bulging. 

“Do you make a habit of stealing and dressing up as servants, Princess?”

“Yes. I hate being stared at.” Asuka drew the writing box from her sleeve with a flourish. She proudly placed it on the ground between them. “Well, show me.”

“Show you what?”

“What, hypothetically, the calligraphy would be like?”

“If I was a hypothetical fox demon?”

Asuka ground the ink stone and mixed it with a little pond water. She handed him the brush. 

“Okay…” Chirikai dipped the brush in the ink and drew a few rough lines on the leaf.

“It’s an alphabet,” said Asuka in amazement. “Here, let me try…”

She took the leaf from him and imitated his rough strokes below, pressing down with the brush on the final line, causing an artsy blot. Chirikai pursed his lips, then laughed. “Not bad.” 

“Not bad?” she repeated. She frowned at the leaf. “Let me try again…” Asuka bit her lip and practiced in the air, flicking ink in the pond. Then, she dipped the brush and tried again. Chirikai watched in mild dismay as she copied his style exactly on her second try. 

 “How’s that?”

He made a non-committal noise. “Hypothetically, not terrible.” 

Asuka threw back her head and laughed at him. She jabbed his bare arm with the brush, and he reached over, smearing ink on her face, and as he did it, he remembered kissing her. As she grumbled, wiping the ink from her face, he realized that the kiss was not a nice memory; he had tried to scare her, mark her like that ink. When they realized they had ruined the shrine’s brush, Asuka promised she would get a new one and sneak it back inside. When she was not looking, he did a careless bit of magic, transforming a twig into a new brush. 

“Oh, there’s an extra brush in the box,” he said in a too-loud voice, shaking the calligraphy box. It was the closest to an apology he could manage. She looked down at the box, black lacquer in his hands, with the look of a girl who knows there was only brush in the box. She looked deep in his eyes. 

Chirikai looked away. 

Two postmen ride towards the mountains, their horses tossing their heads in the moonlight. Asuka heard the horse hooves in the mountain pass. 

“Master Shiho, did you study magic?”

“Yes.”

“How unfortunate that you chose the one woman in this city who can see that this is an illusion.” 

Chirikai shrugged carelessly, even if he did not feel it. “I apologize. I thought this would be different from your usual outings.” Chirikai sat up and dispelled the illusion. The tiny lilies vanished, and the clear water turned muddy. A haze settled over the abandoned pond, obscuring the moon.  

“An ordinary patch of buggy water is not so pretty.” Chirikai frowned. It had been a bit of harmless fox magic, a reason to have her alone. Asuka reached over and held his hands. He stilled. Chirikai was positive she could not see through his transformation, no matter how gifted she was, but there were other things. She tipped her head to the side, her immense power burning over his skin.  

“Why are you so nervous?” she whispered. 

How easy would it be to stop pretending,  he thought, staring into her eyes as if it were a dare. How would you react if you saw me?

Chirikai’s lies grew heavier, but he could still wield them. “I’m not nervous.” There was always an escape. He could feel her warmth before he even touched her, tasted her air before he smelled her. He leaned forward to kiss her, and Asuka drew back in alarm.

“What are you doing?”

“It’s not obvious?”

“I told you—I do not want to have an affair with you.”

Chirikai smirked. “I seriously doubt that. Was your sister unsatisfied?”

Asuka’s jaw dropped. She got to her feet. “I apologize if I was unclear in my intentions when I came with you this evening, as I cannot have an affair with you.”

“Cannot?” repeated Chirikai. He raised his eyebrows and pointed examined her from her flat, beautifully made shoes to the collar of her robe.

“Will not,” Asuka said, vehement. She wiped her hands on her skirt and turned to locate the carriage. “I am going to become a high shaman.” No moonlit evening, no secret poetry. Her heart hurt as she thought that. 

Chirikai rose as well. “Rules and traditions can be silly.”

Asuka shook her head, and Chirikai placed his hands on her shoulders. She jumped, and the pond shuddered, rolling towards their feet. A threat. She held out her hand towards the water as a reminder of what she could do. 

“You may take the carriage home.” Chirikai removed his hands and sat down, staring at the water. “I will stay here.” 

Asuka took Chirikai’s carriage home.