Chirikai sat in a circle with Princess Funako, watching Asuka speak with the Lunarian. Beside him, Lady Muishō whispered in his ear, “We can return to the garden after the party.” The rest of the group was trying and failing to act as if they did not notice. “I would enjoy making love to you in the lingering smoke.” She traced her tongue along his ear, and Chirikai shoved her away. Lady Muishō’s face flushed in humiliation.
“Stop bothering me,” said Chirikai coldly, interrupting the remaining conversation. “I told you we were done. Days ago. How many times do I have to say it?”
Lady Muishō rose to her feet, trying to remain dignified. She opened her mouth, lips trembling. In a flurry of golden robes, she fled into the palace.
Funako glowered at Chirikai. Someone coughed.
“The Lunarian High Shaman has eyes for your sister, Princess Funako,” announced Prince Wada, eager to change the subject. “Look at him! I’ve never seen High Shaman Kouji glance at a woman.”
“He’s been in training his whole life,” said Lady Nichiwa. “Before this week he hasn’t been allowed to glance at a woman.”
“My dear sister cannot take suitors,” Funako said. She unfolded her fan coyly, the gold leaf flashing.
Chirikai felt trapped, and he didn’t know why. He did not like this.
“Cannot or will not?”
“She prefers the company of women then?” asked Prince Wada as he lit an incense stick. He handed it to Funako, who rolled her eyes.
“You misunderstand, as usual. Who do you think will be the heir to the Grand Umiguni Ocean Shrine and the next high shaman? Not me.” She affected a laugh, and the nobles laughed with her. “High shamans in training are supposed to focus only on their training. Ghosts and spirits are her companions. Gods are her guardians.” Chirikai heard the strand of envy in her voice. “Asuka is more gifted than my father. Everyone says so.”
“I have heard goddesses spoken of with less respect.”
“She is to remain a virgin then until she officially becomes High Shaman?”
Chirikai’s mind caught on the word—virgin—like a wheel in a ditch. He got up from the circle, pretending to examine the flowers.
Chirikai stood on his toes and gazed over the wall to a sight on the horizon. Something was on fire on the far edge of the plain. A blanket of lava bubbled at the foot of the mountain. He narrowed his eyes, his vision piercing the smoke and darkness.
It took a moment to make out the forms above the wavering heat. Heimatsu was fighting the volcano god.
Good for you, Heimatsu, thought Chirikai. But he felt something in the pit of his stomach at the thought of the catfish demon doing it alone.
“But Asuka is not above the hiwau,” said Prince Wada.
Funako smiled, lazily fluttering her fan. “It would be ungracious of me to contest that at his party. Excuse me, gentlemen.”
Chirikai could have slipped away into the shadows with a bit of illusion. But Funako ducked beneath a low branch and grabbed his sleeve; he let her do it. He admired her speed.
“Consider an affair with Lady Kumoto,” said Funako. “She is discreet and lovely. Or perhaps Lady Nichiwa.”
He shook his head, distracted. “I am done with affairs. They bore me.”
“You look for love then?” He remained silent, and Funako laughed softly at him, “Keep your secrets, Master Shiho, but you need to be more careful with my sister.”
“We just talk with a door between us.”
She pulled him down to her height. “Be more careful.”
Chirikai watched as Asuka sat down with Kouji. She handed him a dish of lit incense. He touched her hand. Chirikai exhaled. Her face was even, but she looked unspeakably sad, as if she had been left alone on a crowded road. He wished he could just burn this gauzy spectacle to the ground and demand that she tell him the truth. Once again, he wondered why he cared. Why am I still here?
Funako sat down and passed Prince Wada the incense dish. She lit a stick of incense.
“Aged sandalwood,” pronounced Prince Wada.
“I’m tired, Funako,” said Asuka. “I think I’m going to head home early.”
“Take the carriage,” offered Lady Nichiwa, eager to be rid of the solemn girl. “Princess Funako may ride with me.”
Asuka rose and left for the path leading out of the garden. Irritated, and with a bit of effortless magic, Chirikai duplicated himself and rolled out of the circle to follow her. Kouji frowned at the duplicate, but Chirikai couldn’t care less about the high shaman as he snuck away from the party.
He found Asuka in the front garden, staring at the street. “Princess, what’s wrong?” If she had been a demon, he would have offered to tear off someone’s head for her. That offer would likely not go over well. “What happened?”
“I can’t say,” Asuka choked out. “I don’t know.”
“You can tell me. Just start saying the words.” He draped his arm around her. “You want to tell me.”
“My father is trying to become or create a god. I think he’s doing it to stop the monks. He summoned this thing...” Asuka looked at Chirikai. “He should not have.”
“What did he summon?”
“I wouldn’t call it a summon. He asked and it came... A great cloud of darkness and noise. I’ve never heard of it.”
Chirikai stilled at the description, his skin crawling with goosebumps. “What was it called?”
“He called it Sasugamida.”
“Sasugamida? He created us.”
“No, Hōmitachi created us.”
Chirikai froze. “Yes, I mean Sasugamida is like Hōmitachi. Two powerful deities. There are rumors on the Frontier of demons speaking with it. Nothing turned out well for those involved.” He regretted his words. “It’s not evil,” Chirikai said hurriedly, “just disruptive. What did it say?”
“It told him to watch for a sign.” Asuka met his gaze, and he saw her regret spreading over her fine features. She had been stressed before—now she stressed over voicing her fears. “I shouldn’t have told you that...”
“Please don’t be upset.” He shook his head. “You have nothing to regret. I only came tonight hoping to be with you.”
Asuka pulled away from him. “I am not going to have sex with you,” she replied, angry that she had to say it. “You know that. It’s how the oath works.”
I didn’t mean it like that.
“Fine, but let’s be honest here,” he teased. “We both know they’re not going to check when you show up at the shrine for to become high shaman.”
“You misunderstand the purpose!” Asuka walked away from him. “It’s about discipline. It’s about having a single desire. It’s not getting caught in this gossip, the politics, and the lies. It’s about staying true to yourself.” She felt herself bristling, the thought of Lady Muishō on his arm or the lies that came so easily from his mouth. Sometimes she liked it. Tonight, it just made her feel tired. “But what would you know about that? About staying true?”
Chirikai stopped dead. “Fine. Tell me what I can be for you.” He wanted to rush over the plain, away from this mess and help Heimatsu kill a god. He wanted to get away from the gossip, politics, and lies, but he could not leave. Why? “I can be anything for you.”
“You told my mother the same thing.” Asuka waved over her carriage. “How can I trust you when half the things you say are lies?” Her voice broke. “I can feel them, like a centipede crawling inside my ear. Don’t you ever tire of them?”
“No,” answered Chirikai. “I love my lies. Sometimes I become them, and I like myself better for them. Then they’re not lies at all.”
Asuka stepped into her carriage, steadfast. He could not make out the expression on her face.
Chirikai watched as he lost her, horror griping his bones. She was leaving him. “Wait, Princess—”
“I’m going home,” said Asuka. “I have other things I should be doing.”
Chirikai watched as the ox carriage pulled away, and Asuka closed the blinds.