“Father is secluded with the hiwau doing an esoteric ritual,” Asuka told Funako. She stepped down from the platform around the altar.
Funako smoothed down her long hair. “I was supposed to get Father, to help…”
Glancing at the chalk circles on the floor, Funako dimly remembered they marked the spheres of influence from two gods: the god of the bay to the south, and the spirit of a river. This shamanistic stuff overwhelmed her: geomancy and tantric circles, calculations, smoke, and bones... Encyclopedias of rituals gave her headaches. “You can handle it."
Asuka can handle it is what Father would say.
Father had chosen Asuka when as a toddler she turned three, when the family discovered she could breathe underwater. As supernatural signs went, it was not particularly subtle.
As they crossed the pathway stones, and Funako smelled lightning on the air, she felt had not been meant for this apprenticeship. It had taken her years to accept it. Grinding the destiny under her fashionable heel. As the eldest, as the child who’s shaman training has already begun by the time Asuka was born, Funako had been the natural choice.
That morning, Funako had been sleeping at home when the messenger came around, asking for Lord Shinrusu's location to help with an angry god. She was still nursing a hangover, still wearing layers of pink silks and some swishy white pants that had seemed terribly clever the night before, but now, terribly impractical. Funako looked down at her perfect nails, as a raindrop splattered the back of her hand. Terribly impractical. And now, she was ridiculously leading her little sister to battle in shades of peony and cream.
It had been a whole week since the sisters had spoken last, as Funako did not come to the shrine; these days she was out late and did not get home until morning. Asuka left early to train in shamanism with their father. They had been, Funako realized in that moment as they left the shrine, slowly growing apart.
Heirs to high shamanships trained their entire lives to lead the most powerful shrines in the world, commune with the most powerful gods. Asuka could not visit boys—or men—until she officially became high shaman herself. No love, no romance, or tender touches… Funako could not follow her, and Asuka could not join her on her social escapades.
“Where is the god?” Asuka asked.
“He's on the west side of the Capital threatening to poison the crops.” Funako glanced at her nervous servants. Her stupid palanquin bearers. "He's the Wildflower God."
“The Wildflower God... Please tell me they didn't destroy his shrine. Father told them not to.”
"They did." Funako sneered at her servants and stopped Asuka from getting in the palanquin. Instead, she grabbed a wide-brimmed hat from her seat, gauze dangling from the rim to hide her face, and plopped it on her head. “It will be faster to run from here.”
Asuka shoved the umbrella into Funako’s hands. “You carry it.”
They ran out of the shrine, splashing their robes. Asuka held out her hands, sensing the changing boundaries of the angry god. “Where is the god’s shaman?”
"We don't know."
Funako slipped on the wet path, hoping too many courtiers did not see her running around like this.
They were royalty, technically. Their uncle was the King of Umiguni, a country across the sea, and their father was the High Shaman. He served the God of Water and many lesser, water-related divinities. Their father had fallen hard, fallen in love with their mother who had been a brilliant number-smith and socialite in the Capital, and when he proposed, they agreed to raise their family here. Funako and Asuka knew these streets, mansion, markets, and shrines. Frankly, ever since she had started getting the occasional pimple on the back of her hand, Funako actually knew the streets better than her hand.
They turned onto the road running alongside the river. Those who lived by the river were mostly poor. Just to the north, Asuka could see the rice fields, a winding alluvial field where the peasants dug canals, ditches, and planted sprouts with the flush of summer. That was the north. On this western side of the city, there was a forest. A bridge connected the city to the forest here, and a dirt road led north towards the mountains. She reached up to keep holding the umbrella over her sister.
The ocean waves crashed, unrolling over the sand.
“You heard my mother was dead,” repeated Chirikai softly. “And so you come.”
Heimatsu didn’t know how to respond, his hands knotted nervously beneath his robes. Chirikai turned from the ocean to look at Heimatsu, his face blank.
Chirikai burst out laughing. “You heard my mother was dead?”
Heimatsu nodded dumbly as Chirikai laughed until tears gathered in his eyes, bent over, clutching his sides. Heimatsu could not even bring himself to chuckle; there was something sad in the display.
“Dead,” repeated Chirikai. “There is some beauty in that rumor, if rumors can have beauty like poems or blood. I wonder if ‘dead’ was my dad’s choice of words.”
Heimatsu had not heard the rumor from Chirikai’s father, even indirectly, but that wasn’t important. “So, she isn’t dead?”
“What splendid timing you have, Heimatsu. You are ten years too late to comfort a grieving boy.”
He wanted to strangle Chirikai. “What happened?”
The fox demon reached down and scooped up a handful of sand, his expression guarded. “She got tired of all this, I suppose.” Chirikai gestured vaguely at the water, the beach. He threw his fistful of sand into the wind. “She left.”
Heimatsu felt something twist in his stomach. “Where is she? Why haven’t you gone after her?”
“She went to the Capital, I think. She has a lover there. Human intimacy is amazing, so fleeting; I can’t say I blame her. Fox demons have a long tradition of coming down from the mountains and fraternizing with the enemy,” explained Chirikai. “And by fraternizing with the enemy, I mean sex.”
“No,” said Heimatsu. “By fraternizing with the enemy you mean falling in love and making a family.”
That is what fox demons have a reputation for doing.
Demons and humans coexisted in all kinds of strange relationships. Heimatsu and his clan were catfish demons, and they lived in the deep ocean trenches. They caused earthquakes to wreak havoc, to kill humans, to disturb them, but also to remind remind all creatures of the limits of power. Catfish demons were the most philosophical of all the demons, and Heimatsu was no exception. Monkey demons demanded human sacrifices, and ate humans raw. They haunted temples and shrines in the forests. Dog demons attacked humans who entered their territory, but if the humans were lost, they would guide them back to the proper road after hurting them. Cat demons left everyone alone.
But the fox demons had the strangest relationships with humans. There were countless stories of fox demons leading humans to the edges of the forest and putting them up in fantastic supernatural mansions and letting them live in magical luxury until the fox demons grew bored. Then, poof. The human would go insane and end up a beggar in the city. Fox demons flirted with humans and destroyed them for fun.
But sometimes a fox demon would enter a city and fall in love, have a family, as if bewitched. Heimatsu found this especially ironic given fox demons’ gift for bewitching others. Those love stories never ended well, because all it took was for the shape-shifter to lose focus and turn into a fox just once, and a whole city would rise up with torches and swords. Many a fox demon had been killed while in thrall to love, too heartbroken to protect itself.
Which was absurd really, Heimatsu thought, because fox demons were powerful. He never understood it. He also never understood their fascination with humans.
But Chirikai’s mother was beautiful, and she had a powerful husband and a gifted son. It was one thing to hear the bizarre human and fox demon stories in the abstract. It was quite another to sit with a friend on the beach and hear that his mother had abandoned her own.
He just couldn’t bring himself to ask Chirikai why. The answer, no matter what it was, would hurt Chirikai to voice aloud. Besides, Chirikai would most likely lie. That was his nature, and to be his friend meant you knew when to read his lies, understand, and not ask questions. He would say the opposite of what he meant, and the fox demon was wickedly intelligent—he understood the language of silence and deception. He would expect an intelligent friend to understand it as well.
Heimatsu knew that Chirikai had already answered his questions, and he leaned back to lay on the boulder to piece together the truth from Chirikai’s laughter and lies.
Chirikai tipped his head to the side, interrupting Heimatsu’s train of thought. “You think me strange?”
“I think fox demons are strange,” said Heimatsu honestly. “But I wouldn’t want to be friends with an ordinary demon.”
Chirikai chuckled, then bent over and rubbed his eyes.
The waves crashed on the beach, shells and stones rolling in the water like treasures in a tumbling chest. The tide was unfurling, sea foam brushing the demons’ toes.
“You should go see her,” murmured Heimatsu. “She probably misses you.”
You miss her.
“I’d rather not.”
“It’s not that difficult to turn your hair black and walk down to the city. You’d just drop in, say hello, maybe a quick hug, and duck back out.”
“Don’t play dumb, Heimatsu,” said Chirikai wearily. “It’s unbecoming.”
“I don’t have to play dumb, Chirikai. I am dumb. I think I understand what happened, but I do not understand why you won’t go see her. I don’t know if this is a you thing, or if this is a fox demon thing. I don’t know.”
Some seagulls cawed overhead, and Heimatsu watched clouds roll in. “If your mother has taken a human lover, he’ll be dead in ten years or so. She’ll return here. Humans are so fragile and short-lived. It’s not like what happens with demons and gods.”
Heimatsu saw Chirikai look away at the last remark. That meant something. “I do not understand why fox demons look for that sort of relationship with humans, and it certainly doesn’t reflect well on your father, but there has never been any doubt about her caring for you. This must be a vacation, a fling. What is, ten, twenty years to an immortal?”