The man nodded to his daughter. “Asuka.”
The little shaman—Asuka—rolled her eyes, but she left his side to sit behind a gold folding screen in the room so as to observe the conversation. It was not proper for young aristocratic women to be casually seen, and her withdrawal meant that he was in a house of the highest caliber.
This man’s daughters were princesses. Asuka gave him a slitted look that eerily reminded him of his own mother as she settled behind the screen.
Chirikai bowed. “My name is Shiho of the Frontier, and I just entered the Capital on official business when I saw your wife descending from her carriage. Her beauty surprised me so much that I proposed an affair. But she turned me down, and the way she spoke of you was so extraordinary that I knew I had to meet you.” Chirikai gracefully sank down onto his knees, sitting back on his ankles. He bowed one more time. “I’m sorry for the sudden intrusion.” Chirikai glanced up from the floor. “I’m young and impulsive.”
“I am the Lord of Shinrusu, the High Shaman of Umiguni.”
Chirikai lowered into another bow.
He had heard of the Shinrusu family. He glanced at Asuka again. Chirikai guessed that they received offerings from every coastal town and trading vessel within a hundred miles. They were great masters of ritual, realm-protectors—mighty amongst humans—and if Lord Shinrusu was living in the Capital, he was the scion of one of the most powerful families in the world, charged with the leading shrine to the deities of water. Asuka would be his apprentice, explaining her abilities beneath and around the river.
“I have given up my designs on your wife,” announced Chirikai, with all the confidence of a young man bestowing a favor.
“I am relieved,” Lord Shinrusu replied dryly, with all the experience of a man who knows better. He leaned back, relaxing on his elbows. Chirikai followed suit. “This is a novel experience. Usually when my wife rejects suitors, they hurry away. Not come in for tea. Speaking of which...”
Lord Shinrusu raised his eyebrows at his wife.
She raised her eyebrows back.
Lord Shinrusu sighed. “Never mind. What business do you have in the Capital, Master Shiho?”
“I am tracking a woman who left my master’s estate suddenly some years ago. She stole a sacred object, and I recently discovered that she lived in the Capital for a time. Any sort of information would help me in my search.”
“What sort of woman was she?”
That’s the question, isn’t it?
He was normally such a good liar, but the question rattled in his brain, keeping the smooth lies just out of reach. Chirikai could feel the gazes of Lord Shinrusu and his wife, the gaze of Asuka watching him from behind the screen. Lie. Say something.
“A courtesan, I suppose,” he said finally. “She would make a poor servant.”
“What did she look like?” asked Lady Shinrusu.
Chirikai had no idea what form his mother had taken when she left for the Capital, but he could take an educated guess. “She was very beautiful with long, black hair, and brown eyes like the richest earth, and a narrow face. She would have arrived by herself.”
“How long has it been since she ran away?”
“Ten years,” said Chirikai apologetically.
Lord and Lady Shinrusu glanced at each other, and Chirikai knew they had an answer. His heart pounded in his throat.
“Perhaps you mean Lady Warase,” offered Lady Shinrusu. “She had the features you described, although I cannot recall any sacred objects that she possessed.”
She looked at her husband for confirmation and he shook his head. Chirikai glimpsed the girl behind the screen watching him closely.
“She married Minister Warase ten years ago, but there was a scandal last week with her...”
Chirikai found his voice. He tried to remember what his face normally felt like, determined to replicate it. “Yes?”
“It was discovered that she was a demon, a fox demon that had bewitched Minister Warase. Fortunately the demon bore him no children.”
“She is a fox demon?” asked Chirikai, feigning surprise.
“Yes, she was. The guards at the palace saw her transform in the gardens and caught her. Minister Warase has left the Capital in disgrace.”
Chirikai felt them staring at him. He clenched his hands and lied through his teeth. “I am shocked.”
“We all were,” said Lady Shinrusu delicately.
“Perhaps she still has the object I am looking for,” said Chirikai, blindly reaching for the excruciating details. “Where is her body?”
He knew he should have said “the body,” but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
They shifted at the strangeness of the question. “All bodies with no connections are left by the riverbank. But I would not go yourself. Sickness and death pollute that place.”
Chirikai nodded. “I understand.” He swallowed. “My goodness, what a horrible story.”
Lord Shinrusu considered Chirikai as he rolled up the scroll on the floor. “Perhaps not so horrible for Minister Warase. There are much worse things than living in luxury with a beautiful demon who adores you. I daresay Warase knew that when the truth came out; he was no fool.” Chirikai forced himself to unclench his fists. “But, Master Shiho, I’m afraid you won’t find what you were looking for.”
Chirikai nodded in agreement as he bowed one more time, signaling that he was ready to leave. “Sometimes we keep looking anyway.”