The next day she returned home to the palace, discouraged with her lack of progress at several new shrines’ library storehouses. Asuka spread notes she had made on divination, ancient magic, and animal sacrifice on her table, and when she ran out of room, she laid her new scrolls on the floor. There were notes in three languages, illustrations, diagrams... She had drawn boxes around her theories. No answers for what her father wanted, except that he wasn’t attempting possession.
“You were not at the Sun Goddess Shrine today.”
Asuka sighed. She had been ready to take a hot bath and go to bed. She knew she looked weary. Chirikai was waiting for her on their veranda, examining his outstretched sandals. No doubt the servants had let him in.
“I am in no mood for lies and games tonight, Master Shiho.”
Chirikai approached her, thoughtful. “No games then. I came because I realized you found the idea of an affair distasteful, and I wanted to propose an alternative.”
Asuka remained wary. Chirikai glimpsed her notes and froze, swearing in a language she did not understand. He strode towards the scrolls. “Are these yours?”
Asuka remained silent, watching as he dropped to his knees in amazement. “I cannot even read this one—what language is this?”
“Southern pictographs,” she answered, smiling despite herself at his curiosity. “I cannot read it exactly, but I can translate the meaning. I can figure out the pronunciation with enough time to reference phonetically translated versions of famous works and dictionaries.” She fidgeted under Chirikai’s stare as he walked back onto the veranda. “But it’s unnecessary when you’re in a rush.”
“What are you studying?”
Asuka imagined him waiting at the shrine gate for a girl that would never come. She felt guilty, but knew she should not. “Divination. Did you by any chance?”
Chirikai shook his head. “No, but my mother did... for a time.” He touched one of the pictographs.
Asuka crossed her arms, determined to be responsible. “It’s not appropriate for you to be here this late.”
He grinned and leaned against the railing. “Do you ever get tired of the weird double standard between you and your sister? You might learn a thing or two from a night with me.”
No need to throw it in my face. She held out a hand, as if to stop him. “Master Shiho—”
“Don’t call me that.”
“You are not allowed to call me that!” Asuka watched him quell his madness, as furious, grief burned behind his eyes like a wild thing, and she fought the urge to cower. Instead her mind whirled over the lines on his face, the way his shoulders were raised like the hackles of a dog.
“I am sorry.” Chirikai rolled his shoulders, as if he could shed the self-loathing like a sweater. “I swear that I’m not normally like this.”
“I forgive you. I can recall how you are normally.” She gave the boy a small smile and gestured for him to sit, which they both did, her heart racing. “You spoke of an alternative relationship before.”
“Marriage. The rules seem simple,” Chirikai continued. “We spend three nights together and then announce our relationship.”
“Yes, those are the rules here,” she said drily. “I’m glad you inquired.”
Chirikai crossed his arms, and she quieted.
“I’m not marrying anyone yet,” she said.
He was struggling with something. If she didn’t have this mystery as a heavy cloak around her shoulders, she would want to help him. He was the one the Rain God spoke of. If things weren’t so complicated, if it wouldn’t disappoint her family, if she hadn’t sworn an oath, that same oath her father swore and his mother before him... She had already unrolled scenarios, theories for his motivations, like a map in her mind. All graphing that ugly question that made something twist inside her:
She was not the most beautiful woman of his acquaintance. Yet, here he was, his eyes like hard stones as he stared at her for other reasons. It had occurred to her—everything occurred to her—that her might see her as a trophy, the impossible catch, but she could tell that was wrong from the cautious respect in his eyes. Not fear. She was used to fear. Respect.
He was an outsider too.
She knew he was not spending his nights alone. Funako had glumly shared the gossip that he had visited Lady Doren the night of the lilies, and Lady Midori the following night. Actions did not bother her.
Questions bothered her.
Why keep coming back?
She had theories, but her life was full of theories, spirits, and the abstract, and she wanted the stones to crack and let the spring pour forth, to actually feel the water around her hands. But his answers were not meant for her. She couldn’t accept them. She had to send him away. She would be high shaman. She could not be his preoccupation, and she did not deserve his answers, whatever they were.
“I can’t. You know I can’t.”
“Don’t tell me that.” Chirikai sighed. “You’re my only reason for staying here.”
The longing in his voice could weave a tapestry. She doubted he was even aware of his frustration. He covered her in the broken pieces of something—what? Who?
She exhaled as it occurred to her and he took a step closer.
He just lost his mother.
Chirikai forced the seduction into his voice; Asuka knew most would focus on the low timbre, the way his fingertips brushed her wrist and burned like charcoal.
“Humans... so obsessed with bodies,” he said. “They’re looking for all the wrong things.”
He nuzzled her face. “No closer,” whispered Asuka. Chirikai laid his forehead against hers. She closed her eyes, and he closed his. She allowed herself that. No more than this. His skin was soft. As they moved their heads, their cheekbones brushed. Asuka had never allowed herself such closeness with another person before.
“You are so strange,” she whispered, her eyes closed. I’m strange.
He drew back, ever so slightly, and his knuckles ghosted over her lips.
Chirikai savored her warmth. Asuka smelled of old paper, clean fabric. She was so brilliant, and she smelled like home.
He kissed her. Sweetly. His mouth slanted over her lips, pink and soft, and she was nervous. He wondered if he was her first—before did not count. Little terrifying shaman. She closed her eyes again and leaned towards him, seeking his warmth, and he pressed a few gentle kisses to her lips as he slid his hand into her hair.
With his other hand, Chirikai touched her hands and found them shaking.
“Shiho, I’m sorry, I can’t do this.”
She pulled away, and he grabbed her wrist. No.
“Touch me again, and I will curse you.” She jerked from his hold. “And I know exactly which curses to use.”
Chirikai stepped away, his hands in the air. His pulse skyrocketing. Asuka took the ink-stone and the brush he had brought and she thrust it into Chirikai’s hands. “No more gifts,” she told him. “Let me be.”
“I bet I can help you,” Chirikai teased. He was back to teasing.
“Leave me alone.” Asuka closed the door to the veranda, locking herself in her dark room. Then, she dreamt about him, which made it all worse.