Asuka and Funako’s ox carriage rolled to a stop, and the sisters followed the lantern lights around the hiwau’s palace to the party garden.
Funako scowled, leaning over to whisper in her ear. “Master Shiho is probably here. Can you please get that glum expression off your face?”
“I don’t care if Master Shiho is here.”
“I am glad to hear that,” Funako said dryly. “Because... Goodness.”
The girls stopped at the entrance to the garden. Servants had draped the hiwau’s gardens in gold gauze, the walls of the garden replaced with gold leaf screens. Pine trees shimmered with their spectral fabric in the lamplight.
The nobility relaxed on blankets spread on the ground, playing incense guessing games. One prince chose one incense, burned it, and another noble guessed the scent. Asuka stared at them, feeling increasingly alien and lost, although she had played the game countless times. Spindly candles, dishes of ashes, and boxes of incense had been arranged beside each blanket. Between the gold and reflected candlelight, the garden became a place of sunshine in the middle of the night. How could she be here, at a party, now?
The young hiwau sat in his throne on the veranda, speaking with a few nobles.
“He may throw the best parties, but you are still a better shaman,” Funako told Asuka as they approached the veranda.
“He is the Solar King and a high shaman,” said Asuka, humorlessly. Distant. “His father and only teacher sacrificed himself in that divination ritual when the prince was four years old. I have great advantages, so it is a poor comparison.”
Funako rolled her eyes. “I was trying to improve your mood.”
“Princess Funako, Princess Asuka,” said the hiwau. He stood and gestured for them to approach. “I am glad you could come.”
Asuka and Funako stepped up on the veranda. Funako greeting the hiwau and the nobles. Asuka did not really know their names, so she bowed to the hiwau to avoid the awkwardness. The hiwau nodded his head in return, and Asuka realized they were wearing the same color of silvery gray.
“We appear to match,” said the hiwau.
“We do,” admitted Asuka, embarrassed. “I can always go home and change...”
“That is not necessary. I think we make a nice set. Sit and talk with me a while.”
Asuka wondered if he could sense the remains of the Chaos Deity about her. She could feel it. It was a trailing darkness, or a flicker in the distance—she could not tell which, but she felted marked somehow for the whole world to see.
But no one seemed to see it.
Funako nudged her forward and guided other nobles over for an incense game. Asuka settled in an empty chair beside the hiwau, forced to look up at him.
They were about the same age, she realized, but when you place someone on a platform, they seem older.
The hiwau’s ceremonial gold crown was covered in dripping jewels, and it clashed oddly with his silver robes. He grinned, as if understanding her train of thought. “I had the fabric made—from the same weaver as your sister it seems—to celebrate Kouji Yumewara’s appointment. If my outfit coordinated, I doubt anyone would actually notice.”
The last of the nobles left the veranda, revealing the young man seated beside him. Asuka did not recognize the young man in the sweeping black and silver robes, feathers and moonstone beads in his hair. He was slender, his face narrow and exotic.
He looked as foreign as Asuka knew the Yumewara to be.
“Kouji Yumewara?” she asked.
“You know each other?” the hiwau asked. “And there I was, all excited to introduce a new high shaman.”
“We met at our library, briefly,” said Kouji. “Although I looked a little different then...”
“You’re too skinny, you mean,” the hiwau said, “and you have fancier, itchier clothes.”
“My people don’t wear itchy clothes, unlike some, and as for the skinniness...”
Asuka interrupted, grateful for the distraction. “The Lunarians fast when a relative dies. It is an ancient form of purification. We used to practice it.” She fiddled with her sleeve. “I am sorry for your loss.”
The hiwau turned to Kouji. “I did not know Lunarians fasted.”
Kouji gave Asuka a small smile. “He was very old, Princess, much older than your father, and prepared to leave his body. I pray his last journey is a calm one.”
Sometimes Asuka found it easy to forget that the Lunarians were different. They believed that the dead conducted a pilgrimage following the movement of the stars. A thousand years ago they left their homeland because of persecution and colonized the north. The people of the hiwau’s lands spoke multiple languages, but the Lunarians’ language was quite different; she knew that the Yumewara were really the Mèng-yuán, but they changed their names when visiting the capital to be easier to pronounce. More importantly, they claimed to be the descendants of the Moon People, who, well, lived on the moon.
“Kouji and I were discussing the Monks of the Bosa. I invited some this evening. I know how your father feels on the matter, but what do you think, Princess Asuka?”
Asuka shared her father’s feelings on the matter. She knew she had to be diplomatic, but found it hard to see through the furious black smoke, the mare, the blood, and what the monks had driven her father to do. She wiped at her hand, as if she could wipe away the sensation.
“I do not believe in them.” She managed to keep her voice calm. “Show me evidence of a Bosa, and I might worship at their temples. But all I have is their ugly buildings, and their theories, and gods angry at their worship. They’ve put us in danger, just like the country they were driven away from. They cause mayhem wherever they go.”
“The gods are always angry about something,” said the hiwau dismissively. “If it’s not respect, it’s offerings. If it’s not offerings, it’s a lack of shamans. But there are no new problems from the gods. The monks say we live multiple lifetimes. I believe the Bosa are these ultimate deities we’ve heard about, like Hōmitachi.”
Asuka could not mentally connect the writhing mass of power she had seen with the scheming monks. She saw a flicker of disagreement in Kouji’s eyes, raising her hopes that he agreed. He folded his hands in his lap as the hiwau looked to him.
Kouji shook his head at the implied questions. “My people know what’s like to be ridiculed for believing in something different.”
He would say no more.
“I have to sit here,” said the hiwau with a sigh as Asuka rose. Kouji followed her lead. “That is my burden.”
Kouji clapped him on the shoulder. “Bear the burden well, Rì-wáng.”
They stepped off the veranda, walking slowly towards the rest of the party-goers and the incense games.
“Riwan?” repeated Asuka. “Is that his real name?”
Kouji shrugged. “It’s what I’ve always called him. He’s never corrected me, so it’s a name. It seems the hiwau’s official name changes every week. What a strange custom. Even he makes fun of it.”
“We all have our traditions,” said Asuka. She glimpsed Chirikai through the crowd, Lady Muishō hanging off his arm. “Sometimes they protect us.”
They walked to the edge of the garden.
Kouji reached up, pushing his hair behind his ear. “Princess Asuka?”
“Yes, High Shaman?”
“You may call me Kouji,” he said gently. “Pardon my observation, but you look as if a moment of solitary air would be good.” He nodded at a cluster of yellow flowers beside their feet away from the incense smoke. “I find these lovely.”
“Yes,” agreed Asuka, quiet. “They are lovely.”
Kouji did not press the matter. They stood and pretended to admire the flowers.
“May I have a moment with Princess Asuka?”
They turned to see High Monk Sanjō. Asuka tensed. Kouji glanced at her, questioning, and she raised her chin, in a show of distinterested pride. It was convincing enough that Kouji took his leave with a slight bow, and she regretted it.
“I was hoping to see you alone for a moment,” Sanjō said the moment Kouji was gone and they were alone. “You may thank me for rescuing you from the Lunarian.” He gave a bow.
“I like the Lunarian,” said Asuka coldly. “Why did you want to speak with me?”
He took a step closer, so she could smell him as he spoke:
Pine trees creak and groan
Even when they are dew-covered
Flowers are silent
Had her mother been there, she would have informed High Monk Sanjō that he failed the syllable count.
Then, Asuka’s stomach turned as she realized what was happening. She could not believe it. He was telling her a poem, an attempt at a romantic one. She swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. “You have six syllables on the fifth, and you are obviously unaware of our high shaman customs.”
He leered at her, from her sandals to the collar of her robe, saying, “I cannot court you now, of course. But when you take your vows, you should remember my feelings.”
“We’ve barely spoken,” she managed. “How can you have feelings?”
If my father were here, he’d kill you, Asuka realized. She wondered how long it would take for a messenger to reach his mansion. Her thoughts turned hysterical. My father is in the murdering mood, High Monk Sanjō!
Then, she realized High Monk Sanjō was just as old as her father. The stubble around his long face was gray. She could see the age lines around his eyes, so clear because he was so close.
Suddenly, she felt very young and small.
Asuka looked for the nearest pond in case she needed to dunk him, or escape, running over the surface of the water. Far away. Far away from all this, she could run down the main avenue to the ocean and crash into the waves. Maybe she could go live with the Sea Goddess in her palace at the sandy bottom, or she could just keep swimming. The tide would carry her home, carry her home to that marshy coast of Umiguni where the hazy memories were warm and safe. It seemed every year that the memories became less sharp, as if the more powerful she became, the more she forgot. Or maybe, that was growing up.
Sanjō’s unwanted stare reminded her very much that she had grown up.
“I can sense our connection,” continued Sanjō. “Between your gifts and my training, I believe we can mend the bridges your father has burned between the Bosa and the gods, between the people.”
“I have to return to my sister,” Asuka said. “Do not speak to me again.”
Sanjō reached out and grabbed her hand. He stroked her wrist, before she pulled away. “Do not fear desire, Princess. You must expect to be desired.”