Chirikai walked through the Capital, absorbing the riot of color and noise that filled the streets. He had emerged from the forest and transformed to give himself unremarkable hair and brown eyes. Each street he walked down, he watched the fashions for the men and tailored his outfit. He changed his trousers from brown to burgundy and trailed gold thread on his collar. He softened his jaw a little, made his skin paler. When women began looking at him, or riders began moving the screen aside in their palanquins to look at him, Chirikai was satisfied. He followed a caravan bearing luxury goods and chests filled with taxes that was being paraded towards the city center. Spring was in full flush with flowers spilling from nobles’ gardens into the streets. He shooed some bees away from his ear.
Children carried sweets in their hands, sticky fruits and candied nuts, and ran shrieking. He heard music: drums and flutes echoing over the rooftops; they were fulfilling their promise to the Wildflower God. The citywide festivities passed around him, like he was a rock in a current. Normally he liked this sort of thing. But with each street he passed, unable to hear her laugh or sense his mother’s power, Chirikai felt his heartbeat quicken and sink with anxiety.
Pollen had blown down from the mountain trees, covering the rooftops of houses, shrines, and stores. Fans were aflutter in the warmth. The nobility watched the festival and tribute processions from behind painted screens on their raised verandas, and Chirikai watched the nobles, searching for her face. Commoners watched from the street. She would not be there.
Chirikai ducked into a more quiet side street as a noblewoman stepped down from an ox-drawn carriage, her multicolored robes billowing behind her. Something in the noblewoman’s face caught his eye. Funako followed behind her with flowers, laughing behind a camellia-scented fan at some quip the older woman had made.
She was their mother. He could tell. She ushered the Funako into the mansion, and because Chirikai had a bad tendency to chase things that would hurt him—and because this house was as good as any other—he followed the women to their doorstep.
Chirikai stepped over a cluster of orange lillies as he brushed the pollen from his sleeves.
“Might I have the pleasure of addressing the mistress of the house?”
The mother and her daughter had skin as pale as swan feathers; he would have to use that skin tone the next time he designed a human form. He resisted the urge to touch his skin and change it.
The daughter in her pink and pea-green robes was as good as any to fall in love with, he supposed, but that would not get him into the house. So he smiled at the mother and ignored the daughter as she gaped at him, very interested. The mother prodded the daughter from her stupor, and she hurried inside with a huff.
Then, the mother turned to Chirikai. “Yes, and who are you?”
A lazy smirk drifted over his face. “I can be whomever you would like.”
She leaned her hip against the door. “I take it you’re not from around here.”
Chirikai took a step beside her, leaning his hip against the other side of the door, turning towards her. She smelled like sandalwood and the evening faces flowers. “Perhaps,” he said coyly, “but I am looking to be acquainted.” Chirikai paused, sliding his finger down the door as he said a poem:
Even the strongest
Follow your perfumed breezes
These mysteries of spring
“Very nice,” said the mother gently. “You’d do best not to say ‘spring’ there, however. It’s a bit too direct. A flower name would be much more effective, but you would have to make the syllables work, of course.”
Chirikai laughed, oddly pleased that she had not fallen at his feet. “I’m out of practice.” A bit of poetry was always the way to start a relationship.
“You’re very charming, but...”
Chirikai winced theatrically.
She continued, “But if you were from around here, you would know my husband, and you would understand that he is a possessive man.”
“Men have that tendency. I’m not suggesting we spend time with your husband.”
“You would also know that,” she added, “we’re hopelessly in love.”
“Are you really?” said Chirikai, astonished.
She nodded with a pitying smile, but good humor. Chirikai liked her instantly. “He is that extraordinary? So you won’t consider having an affair with me?”
“I’m afraid not.”
He stepped out of the doorway. “I must meet him then.”
Chirikai pointed at the house. “Your husband. If he has inspired such devotion in you, he must be a man worth meeting and I would be a fool to continue through the Capital. Good fathers and husbands are rare.”
The mother tipped her head and gave Chirikai a pensive stare. He didn’t like the look. “I can’t tell if you’re serious or not.”
“I’m completely serious.”
“How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” lied Chirikai. “But I’ve never been turned down.”
“I do not find that hard to believe,” she said dryly. She finally stepped into her home. “Well, if you would like to meet my husband, come inside. This will be a first.”
The mother led him to a receiving room, its walls lined with gold and brown screens, the soft matting of the floor green. Beyond the walls opened a veranda overlooking a small garden where cherry blossoms wept on the porch.
Her husband relaxed on the floor with his youngest daughter. Asuka.
With her round face, she was not as pretty as her mother or sister; she looked like her father. But, there was something achingly familiar about the way she held herself, the smudge of ink on her wrist, the gleam of pure joy in her eyes as bright as polished oak. She wore the orange trousers of a shaman and the blue sash and trim of an important shrine. One of her sleeves was heavy with a scroll peaking out from her sleeve pocket. They were analyzing another scroll, and he was in the middle of pointing to a character, his orange and white robes dragging over the floor as he murmured an explanation in her ear. He was old, with streaks of gray in his hair, and the youngest daughter imitated his stately posture. Chirikai could see the adoration in her eyes and it made her beautiful. He had once felt that for his father. He did not feel it now.
The two looked up at him as they entered.
In a second, Chirikai knew that this man was intelligent enough, was powerful enough to see through his illusion if he looked closely enough. The man reached up and analyzed Chirikai from the toes of his socks to the brown of his eyes. He waited for the shaman to recognize him for what he was. He felt naked, and so he smiled.