When she arrived home, Asuka ignored the inquisitive looks of the servants and requested a dinner tray. If her mother wanted to give her grief for only staying two hours, so be it.
A maidservant brought her some soup and cold foods from the kitchen, and Asuka half-heartedly picked at the pile of pickled radish, normally her favorite. She had not eaten all day, and she knew she should because she needed her strength, and she desperately needed a plan.
Asuka heard something scratching at the door to the veranda. She crawled over and slid it open.
A fox waited on the other side of the door, his red coat gleaming in the starlight. He remained as still as stone while she pulled back from the doorway. The fox was being clear at a time when nothing else seemed honest, a painful realization that washed over her like cold surf. Asuka held her sleeves up to her face, covering her mouth and nose as her eyes filled with tears.
Asuka lowered her sleeves and leaned back to pick up a boiled egg from her dinner tray. Not knowing what to say when faced with his honesty—instead of his lies—she focused on peeling the egg and rolled it onto the veranda. Chirikai gobbled it up in one bite.
“Is this a sign?” she asked as she placed a plate of rice balls before him.
The fox considered the rice balls for a moment, then looked at Asuka. He placed a paw on the plate and transformed.
It was a rare thing to see a fox demon transform. Many people told tales of seeing the shapeshifters in one form, then rushing away to take another. There was no fuss in the transformation, she supposed, just a pulse of light as the pebble of his thoughts sent magic rippling over his skin. It felt intimate to watch.
The fox demon did not look like Shiho. He wore his hair short, his face beautiful in the ancient way. Long limbs and cords of muscles were wrapped in a luxurious ivy robe. His gaze never wavered from hers as he changed, his eyes a peculiar shade of green she had never seen—eyes like he was watching her as he undressed and changed his clothes.
He picked up one of the rice balls from the plate.
“My mother always taught me to eat rice balls with my hands,” Chirikai said finally.
His voice was the same deep timbre as Shiho’s. Asuka nodded. She managed to speak. “I can understand that. It must be hard to eat rice balls with just your mouth.”
He relaxed, ever so slightly, as it became clear she was not going to flee.
Asuka thought he looked terribly young: a man with the eyes of a boy.
“My name is Chirikai.”
He looked like Lady Warase—Asuka’s chest hurt. He actually looks like her. “I forgive you for lying.”
“You’ve known I was lying from the beginning?”
“From the beginning.”
He laughed, rubbing his arms. “Of course you did, little shaman.”
“Why me?” she asked in a small voice.
He gazed back at her. He could not—would not—answer her question, but like mirrors re-directing light, said something that revealed the answer all the same. “I do not know how to frighten humans into relinquishing their stupid beliefs or fake deities. But I know how to pacify unruly gods. I’ll go help your father with the volcano.”
“You will risk your life for that.” For me. She felt as if they were being pulled towards something dangerous, a current to a darkened thicket where even the birds did not fly. “The two of us together,” she murmured. “This is a sign. A dangerous sign.”
“Of sorts,” Chirikai whispered. “All the signs around me are dangerous.” Sitting near Asuka, he realized, with her smell of ink, ocean, and knowing eyes felt like home. What he wanted home to be. “Have you ever been to Netsuki Shrine along the Firelight Pass?”
Asuka shook her head.
“It’s beautiful in late spring,” he said, wistful. “The icicles of the mountain caverns fall away from the rock. In starlight, on nights like tonight, the pass looks to be full of crystals and pearls. Some claim that it’s just an illusion. But I know it’s real because I’ve been down to the bottom of the Firelight Pass and touched the broken pieces that catch the light.”
Chirikai scooted towards the doorway, but never crossed it. The space between them hummed like a living thing, hot and breathless, as she leaned towards him and he spoke in undertone.
Never doubt that ice
Melts in the rivers
Never doubt that snow
Blooms in the ocean
Memories will change
But they will not disappear.
“So, when all this is over, I can take you there.”
“When all this is over… I would like that.”
“Unlike the others, I can wait for eons.” He paused. “I can be whatever you need me to be.”
Then, Asuka knew why her heart softened around him.
His lies, his beauty, his performances, but that desperation for someone, anyone to see through it and see him. What a heady thing it was, she realized, to be the only one to see him. She swallowed, feeling like the ugly one, suddenly shy. Asuka chose her words carefully.
“It seems like a lot of trouble for my companionship.”
Chirikai smiled, but his eyes were serious. “The trouble doesn’t matter.”
Asuka wiped her eyes. “Go find my father. Tell him what you know, and take whatever action you need to.”
Chirikai nodded and stepped off the veranda into the garden. “Good evening, Princess.”