For the next two weeks, Asuka explained to her family that she was researching fortune-telling at the different libraries. Scroll after scroll, dusty room after dusty room, she read her way through the Capital. She barely saw her mother and she avoided Funako, who was too perceptive sometimes.
She spent time with her father at the shrine in the evenings. Asuka noticed some of the pits filled with kindling, others with metal, clay, and precious stones. None of the attendants knew why.
Her father vaguely explained, unprompted. “A variety of materials corresponding with different cardinal directions lends more power to the shrine.” He poked her on the forehead. “You’re not the only one doing research lately.”
Asuka forced herself to laugh.
Chirikai remained a constant fixture in her life, whether it be through rumors or the gifts and poems he left on her veranda.
The boy in question crept across the veranda and knocked on the closed door. Asuka watched the door. He knocked again.
Asuka shook her head and re-read a scroll. Chirikai knocked again.
She sighed and picked up a brush. She had to move heaps of papers even to find a smooth place to write. She wrote him a poem with warriors as a theme. She thought he would appreciate it.
Amidst the blizzards
Plum flowers bloom in the snow
Soldiers in purple
As I sleep on this cold road
Plums above saying fight on
It was uncultured to write a poem out of season, but Asuka slid it under the door anyway. If she could not be more—like everyone else—with him, she at least wanted to give him a poem. If she could not kiss him, could not watch the moon rise and fall together, she could at least give him a poem. She fought with herself until the last second when she pushed it under the door.
Chirikai took the poem and left.
The next morning over breakfast, Funako said that Lady Nichiwa had spotted him visiting the possessive Lady Muishō—not that Asuka even asked. When she returned to her room to finish dressing, she noticed a note under the veranda door.
Plums are desperate
The fields are ever so cold
Other flowers cower, but
By hoisting their small banners
Plums hope they’ll banish winter
They traded poems for a week. Chirikai continued to trade his lovers. He continued to slaughter demons in the mountains by daybreak, and he kept an eye out for Heimatsu. Sometimes he would wait for her to come home. Finally as he was pushing his latest poem under her door, Asuka spoke.
“Do you sleep anymore, Shiho?”
Chirikai wracked his brain for something sardonic or witty, but was left with breathless relief. He wiped the demon blood on the inside of his robes. “I sleep but my dreams are plagued.”
Asuka couldn’t help it; she was exhausted and just laughed in response. “If that how you romanced Lady Muishō?” she teased.
“No,” Chirikai answered, serious. “I closed my eyes and imagined other things.”
“Are your eyelids that seductive?”
He laughed. “Of course, iyomanme noko.” The possessive endearment slid off his tongue, and it startled him how much he sounded like his father. Early days when the waters around his home were still warm.
“What language is that?”
Chirikai paused. “It’s spoken on the Frontier. You’ve never heard it?”
“Iyomanme noko,” she repeated. “What does it mean?”
“It means ‘I’m tired,’” lied Chirikai.
She tucked the poem into her sleeve. “I have to go. I am already late.”
Chirikai left through one of the doors in the garden, which connected to the street. As he closed the door, he saw a palanquin waiting in the street. He found the waiting palanquin strange because it was so early. He assumed it was another lover completing their assignation and winked before continuing on his way.
Chirikai continued to visit in the mornings. Asuka never opened her door, but she never sent him away. They conversed for an hour every morning, sometimes on the meaningless:
“Have you ever eaten something you’ve regretted?”
“A live rat,” said Chirikai. “Never do it. The friends who dare you are not your friends.”
Sometimes they spoke on things better left unsaid.
“I once painted a butterfly on my mother’s buttock,” admitted Asuka. “When she was sleeping.”
“I’m not going to respond to that. Although, I want you to know that I had a number of inappropriate responses.”
“It is unfair that you know my parents and I know nothing of yours,” Asuka said. “What is your mother?”
“She was a scholar.”
“A scholar on the Frontier?” asked Asuka. “That would be difficult. There are few texts. What about your father?”
“He used to kill things. Now he is a courtesan.”
“So, you take after your father then?”
“No,” said Chirikai, vehement. “Never.”
“I apologize.” When he never responded, Asuka opened the veranda door to find he had left. But he returned the next day and the days after that, and Asuka never mentioned his father again.
Chirikai could hear the strain in her voice, but when he asked about it, she remained silent. He thought he’d tear the door to pieces. It would be like snapping apart a crab with his bare hands. She needs to ask me for help. Please, ask me for help.
He did not understand why he so desperately needed her to ask him for help. When he laid in bed, in the early hours of the morning as the sun crept towards whatever bed he was in, Chirikai promised himself that he would wait. He would wait for her to ask.
But, if something went wrong, he decided, he would not wait.
During their conversations, Asuka never mentioned her father, although it weighed more and more heavily on her mind.
Gradually, her father filled and covered all the saltwater pits, each one topped with a candle. The attendants were commanded to not touch them, and Asuka prayed that nothing besides the branches, metals, clay, and precious stones lurked beneath the covers. She asked the shrine attendants if any animals had been brought in to be blessed. They said they had seen no animals, which Asuka saw as both a blessing and a data point.
Of two things, Asuka was positive. First, he was not attempting to replicate the ritual the former hiwau used to summon the Sun Goddess. She had known in her heart that he would not, but she had confirmed her heart’s findings with facts. She found a scroll describing the ritual in minute detail in the hiwau’s library—no saltwater pits involved. Second, he was not attempting a divine-possession at all. Asuka studied maps at the Yumewara shrine library which detailed how offerings and sacrifices had to be laid out, and the saltwater pit configuration was all wrong.
He was attempting something new. He was somehow communicating with something humans had never spoken to.