“The Onmyoji’s Wife”
by Kate MacLeod
Kenji stood, onmyoji cap in his hands, trying to lose himself in the gentle breeze that whispered through his favorite tree, picking up the scent of the peaches before tickling over his uncovered head.
It was divine, the sound of the leaves, the smell of overripe fruit, the coolness of autumn blowing down from the mountains. But it wasn’t enough. It didn’t dispel the memories plaguing him. Daichi’s scream as the spirit flung him into the wooden crossbeam then hurled him down onto the floor. The shattering of bones, the tang of blood in the air. The malevolence of the spirit pressing at his mind even as he and Gakuto fled.
“If we could figure out where we went wrong,” Gakuto said from where he sat on the walkway behind Kenji. “We were so close.”
“We were close,” Kenji admitted, “but it’s hopeless. I never understood Daichi’s ideas. Did you? We could never figure out what went wrong.” He left the shade of the tree to sit next to his friend. They and Daichi had started onmyodo school together twelve years ago, had spent nearly every waking minute together since then. Now they were a triangle with a missing point, no shape at all. Even Gakuto felt lost to him somehow.
“Every dead onmyoji increases the spirit’s power,” Kenji said. “I fear the wards will fail soon. It will escape the princess’s rooms and take the palace.”
“The imperial architect has been to see the master three times in the last six days,” Gakuto said. “I think they mean to move the palace.”
“The city was built to perfection,” Kenji said, appalled. “Moving the palace would destroy the harmony.”
“How can they not? We’re powerless to fight this thing.”
“It won’t be enough. They’ll have to move the whole city.”
“We were so close,” Gakuto said, burying his face in his hands. By his silence Kenji knew he was too tired to even weep, or afraid if he started he would never stop. Kenji reached out a hand to touch his friend’s shoulder but then let it drop, afraid that small gesture would have them both lost in useless mourning and despair. He couldn’t give in to that, there was still a battle to be fought.
Beyond the walls of the garden the sound of an ox cart’s wheels on gravel broke the early morning quiet. Then they both turned at the sound of footsteps whispering up to them at a run. It was Naoyuki, one of the more excitable apprentices.
“It’s Ienaga Fumihiko at last! It must be!” he gasped, but the grin on his face died away as he got a closer look at the two of them. Gakuto still had his face in his hands and Kenji knew he looked half dead himself, eyes bloodshot, cheeks sprinkled with the tiny bruises that were the signs of hard magic.
“Where is Daichi?” Naoyuki asked.
Kenji brushed aside the question. “Who is Ienaga Fumihiko?”
“The onmyoji who cleansed the governor’s palace in Shinano Province. That spirit was much like this one. Fumihiko must know some secret spell, some new technique to bind this new kind of ghost. He’s our last hope.”
“There’s always something else to try,” Kenji said, repeating his sensei’s teaching on reflex. In truth he had never been so drained of energy, so far away from hope. Death would mean rest at last.
He heard again Daichi’s bones crunching, the splat of his flesh as his broken body hit the floor. The flatness of it had been uniquely horrible as it lay oozing blood over the golden floorboards of the princess’s private chamber. He knew he had run away at that moment, but his memory lingered longer, watching the blood reach out, find the channels in the wood, spread across the room.
He didn’t want to die like that.
“Come on, let’s go watch him go in to meet the master,” Naoyuki insisted. The grin didn’t return, but there was no dampening his enthusiasm. “I want to see what he looks like.”
Kenji was about to decline, it was the sort of thing the younger students would do, not a practicing apprentice like himself, but to his surprise Gakuto lifted his head, eyes glassy but dry, pushed himself up onto his feet and led the way through the gardens and dormitories of the onmyodo school towards the front gate.
The cart had pulled up and the occupant was emerging just as they arrived. A hand reached out to take the assistance the driver offered, and Kenji was marveling at the age of that fine-boned hand when the rest of the figure came into view.
A woman. A woman with hair shot through with silver, in robes several years out of fashion, looking around at all the palace buildings with awe and a touch of fear. Then she squared her shoulders and followed her guide to the audience chamber.
“I don’t understand,” Naoyuki said. “That is the Shinano Province seal on the cart. What does this mean?”
“It means tomorrow they start building the new palace,” Gakuto said. The momentary surge of hope was gone. He turned to head back to their dormitory without a word of farewell. Kenji, suddenly more curious than tired, decided to join Naoyuki and the other apprentices in the back of the audience chamber.
Gakuto had been right, Daichi had been close. And if he, young as he had been, had been close, it was possible that someone else would get closer still.
If this woman was somehow the last hope that Naoyuki had spoken of, he wanted to hear what her plan was. Assistants would be required, volunteers called for. There had been fewer and fewer of those of late. Tired as he was, he would step forward. He wanted another shot at the demon that had killed his best friend.
Ienaga Chiaki, already on her knees before the ceremonial altar, collapsed, face pressed to the floor, and struggled just to breathe through the pain. It would fade; she knew it would fade. The burn sank deeper into her, loosening skin from flesh. The urge to scratch, tear, slough it off was thick in her brain.
But all of that was tolerable compared to the rage, the screaming in her mind, the thirst for blood that seized her throat, cramped her belly, demanded that she sate it. She was disappearing into it.
Then through the screaming in her mind, past her own tormented cries, she heard a tinkling of bells and remembered where she was. Heian-Kyo, at the imperial palace, in the rooms of the emperor’s favorite daughter. The bells hung from a peach tree in the private garden and the wind that made the bright music brought the smell of over-ripe peaches with it. Chiaki felt squeezed, as if in the grip of an enraged octopus, her ribs creaking, ready to crack and pierce her from within, but past all that the smell of peaches brought her a hint of calm.
And calm brought her focus.
She managed a deep breath through her aching ribs, unclenched fists to press palms to cool wood floor, and summoned all she had left in her to focus, to make a prison in her mind for what was fighting to consume her.
Slowly the breathing came easier, the burn fading to a tolerable itch, and the malevolence within her was trapped, cursing in the back of her mind.
Chiaki could hear the worried voice of the young onmyoji Kenji, knew he was frightened to draw closer let alone touch her. She stayed as she was face down on the floor for some minutes more.
She remembered the day she had brought forth her own son, a struggle that had lasted until deep into the night. When the sun had risen once more she had risen with it, her legs trembling, her face in the mirror blood-bruised and strange, a squishy emptiness at the center of her.
She felt much the same now, except not empty. No one could feel empty with a demon inside them desperate for escape.
“Milady?” Kenji called again.
“Don’t worry,” Chiaki said, sitting back on her heels but still too weak to sit up straight. Her hair around her was a tangled mess. How long had she fought before she had swallowed the demon? It felt like hours and yet the moon was still high in the sky, dawn far away.
“Did you do it? Is it gone?” he asked, still not drawing nearer.
“Once I leave, this place will be perfectly safe,” Chiaki said. She could sit up further now, but her hair was still distracting her. So silver, when had it gotten so silver? That was what came of never going out among people, losing track of the details of appearance. It was terribly unfashionable even in her mountain town to look so old, and yet in the moonlight she found the silver strands quite lovely.
“That’s good!” he said with audible relief. “But then Master Tadayuki had complete confidence in you.”
Chiaki snorted her displeasure at the mention of that odious name. To claim to hold her in such high esteem and yet not listen when she pleaded that she was no onmyoji whatever rumors had reached his ear. Once could not both respect an elder and think oneself better able to judge her abilities than she can.
Chiaki felt hate burning in her heart, heat building as if someone worked a bellows in her chest. But of course that was exactly what was happening, damn that demon. It was going to find every way to turn her own thoughts and feelings against her.
Chiaki drew a shaking breath. “I will need aid to get safely home.”
“Of course. The escort that brought you here will see you home again.”
“No, I need you,” she said. “I will need a trained onmyoji to help me with the binding spells. I can show you what characters to write but I need you to imbue them with power.”
“Binding spells? But why?”
“Didn’t you see?” Chiaki snapped, the demon pushing her to anger yet again. She took a breath. “The demon isn’t gone; I do not have that power. So I have swallowed it.”
“Can that even be done?”
“Clearly. If the bait is tempting enough. I guess I was.”
“So I will help keep it bound until you reach home, but what then?”
“One thing at a time, Kenji-san. One thing at a time.”
In truth she had no idea. All she knew was that her own death would free the demon, not trap it in her body or shackle it to her own soul in the afterlife. With her husband she had seen one demon drive entire families to suicide one by one. Throwing herself off a bridge would not end things.
But the demon kept whispering it to her all the same. The voice was so comforting, so persuasive. And she was so very tired.
Kenji expected a long wait to see Master Tadayuki but although his rank was lowly his task was an important one and he was rushed inside the audience chamber the moment he arrived.
Despite the early hour the master was already deep in discussion with two other onmyoji. They stopped speaking as Kenji and his attendant approached, the other two withdrawing to their usual stations along the side of the chamber as Kenji knelt low before Master Tadayuki.
“Report,” the master said.
“The Lady Chiaki successfully removed the spirit from the princess’s rooms,” Kenji said.
“You saw it was done?”
“I was there the entire time. It was a technique I’ve never seen before; it looked like she swallowed it. I performed the usual tests afterward and the malevolent spirit is definitely gone. The princess can safely return to her quarters.”
“Excellent,” Master Tadayuki said, although he didn’t sound particularly impressed. He cocked an eye at his nearest advisor.
“I do believe that is how she reportedly drew out the ghost at the governor’s home. Her husband did the usual rituals with as little success as we’d ever seen him demonstrate when he still worked in Heian-Kyo, then she just swallowed the thing. The governor confirmed the story; the ghost never returned.”
The master nodded then looked to the other advisor.
“It stands to reason a woman’s magic would be different than a man’s,” he said after a moment’s thought. “More receptive than aggressive, that makes a certain sense. The Chinese Taoists have studied the differences in the sexes, perhaps I can find the relevant texts . . .”
“No need,” the chief said with a wave of his hand. “We are scarcely going to start allowing women in our order. This was a one-time special case.”
“Of course,” the advisor said with a bow.
“I trust you sent her home again?” the master said to Kenji.
“The Lady Chiaki had a request,” Kenji said, trying not to sound as nervous as he felt. “She asked for an escort, a trained onmyoji to accompany her back to her village.”
The master made a rumbling noise at that.
“It sounds like she wants to impress her neighbors,” the first advisor suggested.
“We can’t officially acknowledge how she helped us,” the second said.
“But an onmyoji escort is enough to start whispers and rumors. You know how women are; the intrigue is the payment she is asking. Can we spare the man?” the master asked.
“We don’t need to send a good one,” the first advisor said, consulting a scroll that Kenji took to be some sort of duty roster.
“She said she needed an onmyoji to perform a binding spell, I think of her own creation.”
The master snorted his disdain and Kenji bowed lower.
“A new recruit would do,” the second advisor said. “You could send this fellow. She already knows him.”
“I would be honored,” Kenji said, bowing lower still, feeling the master’s eyes on him.
“You faced this demon twice in the last two days,” the master said.
“Yes, my lord.”
“And before that?”
“I was present at the first attempt as an observer.” The memories rushed up like a tidal wave, his mind washed over in visions of the five most advanced onmyoji and nearly a dozen apprentices tossed around like a child’s dolls.
“And you lost your sensei on another attempt,” the master went on.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Escort this woman to her home; you have earned that rest. We have much to organize here, but when you return we will find a new sensei for you.”
“More apprentices than sensei,” the first advisor fretted. “We will have to double up.”
But Kenji wasn’t listening. His heart sank at this mission that made him little more than a bodyguard to a very old woman. After years spent studying the theories and rituals of onmyodo, he had so looked forward to working side by side with an experienced onmyoji, learning to apply all he’d been taught. He wanted to study Daichi’s notebooks, see if he could figure out what his brilliant friend had been working on. Now he was doomed to spend weeks traveling by ox cart up into the mountains, and if he was very unlucky he might get trapped there by the approaching winter.
Lady Utsusemi pulled back the screen of her carriage window to look at the thickly falling snow. She would have found it beautiful watching it from next to a warm fire at home. Caught out in it, it struck her more cold than beautiful.
It was late in the year for an outing, but it had been her only chance to arrange a meeting with her prospective paramour. She looked down at the poem in her hands. The paper was carefully selected, the hue of the ink complementing it perfectly. The perfume in particular pleased her, with its hint of cherry blossoms, although it was unlikely he knew of her personal fondness for cherry blossoms. She was ashamed to have such a common affection. The handwriting was impeccable, if lacking in a certain more creative flourish.
But the poem was vapid nonsense.
Lady Utsusemi folded it with a sigh. It was just as well this storm would block the mountain pass between their villages; she didn’t feel inclined to even answer with a poem of her own, let alone extend a further more intimate invitation.
Although if he should show up at her window after trudging over the snow-bound mountain to reach her, she’d consider letting him in. If just for the way she could inject romance into the tale later.
The snow had a deadening effect on the sounds of the world around her. Even the crunch of the road under the ox cart’s wheels had softened to a whisper. The keening wail that shattered the quiet calm nearly brought a scream to her own lips.
Could an animal feel such lonely agony? But surely that had not been human.
“Driver?” she called.
“I don’t know, milady,” he called back to her. “I don’t see anything near the road. We’re nearly through the pass; we’ll be home soon.”
“Thank you,” she said, resisting the urge to tell him to hurry. She knew he was already going as fast as he dared. She looked down at the poem in her hands, now a wrinkled, torn mess. It deserved no better but still she was sad. There were no men worthy of her anywhere in the prefecture, it seemed. If only she could return to Heian-Kyo.
The cart slowed to a stop.
“There’s another cart on the road, milady. It’s stuck in a rut.”
“Offer them assistance with my compliments,” she answered, wondering which of her neighbors had also braved the darkening skies for one last outing. She hadn’t seen any familiar carriages at the temple service. She carefully pulled back the screen of her window, allowing herself a quick glance.
She didn’t recognize the insignia but the carriage was of too high of quality to be local. What would anyone from the imperial city be doing here at this time of year?
The howl came again, closer. It sounded like many voices blended together, but all starting and stopping at once. The poem in her hands was now in two mangled pieces.
That definitely hadn’t been an animal. It would be a terribly inconvenient time to have a demon problem; the old onmyoji was now two years dead and he had never taken an apprentice after his son had died from fever. Some whispered that his wife had been the one with real power but Lady Utsusemi made it a point not to believe in nonsense.
Footsteps crunched towards her.
“Yes,” she answered guardedly; she did not know the voice. Through the screen she could see he was a young man in fine, if now wet, robes.
“I apologize for delaying your return home. My name is Kenji. It’s my cart your man is helping to move.”
“You’re an onmyoji,” she said after closer inspection of his robes and hat. Judging by his youth he’d just joined the order and was on his first mission. “From Heian-Kyo?”
“That’s correct, milady.”
“How lovely. I was born in Heian-Kyo myself, but my late husband was appointed to serve the governor of this prefecture.”
“I thought I heard the tones of home in your voice,” he said. Utsusemi smiled. The fading of her youth was beginning to show around her eyes and mouth, but her true beauty had always been her voice, and that was undiminished.
“What brings you so far from home this late in the year? I’ve not heard of any hauntings in the area. At least not until today; did you hear that wail?”
“I’m escorting the Lady Chiaki back from court.” Lady Utsusemi peered harder through the screen, but in the dying light she couldn’t make out his features. He sounded so weary.
“But that wasn’t her I’ve been hearing? The cries that wound my very soul? Whatever is wrong with her?”
“She is a brave woman,” Kenji said. Lady Utsusemi pressed her lips together. She didn’t like that evasive answer.
“She’s brought evil here,” she guessed. “Evil she can’t control.”
“She did a service for the emperor.”
“Which I’m guessing means the same. And now the passes will be filled with snow and we’ll be trapped here with whatever demon she’s brought with her. I knew she would come to a bad end, thinking herself equal to her father and then her husband, both trained onmyoji. Now she’s doomed us all.”
“You forget about me. I’m also a trained onmyoji, and I swear to you what we have brought with us won’t reach beyond the Lady Chiaki’s walls.” He had stepped closer, in truth closer than propriety allowed, close enough for her to make out his face through the opaque screen. The weariness of his journey added an edge to what would otherwise be a too pretty countenance. And his eyes were so very earnest.
“So you will be snowed in with us?” Lady Utsusemi asked, all thoughts of the demon gone.
“It looks that way.”
“I know our little village doesn’t compare to the myriad attractions of life at court, but I shall take it as my personal responsibility that you not be bored waiting for spring.”
“That’s very kind of you, milady.”
She smiled, a more flirtatious comment on her lips, when that horrible symphonic scream shook the air once more. Lady Utsusemi would swear the snowflakes scurried to flee from it.
Kenji looked over his shoulder at the other carriage. It was out of the rut, Lady Utsusemi’s driver jogging back through the deepening snow.
“This will test every bit of my skill,” he said, not to her.
“Call on me when it is done,” Lady Utsusemi said. “I don’t think I shall be able to sleep until I know it is gone.”
“I will,” he said. “But you have my word: not beyond the Lady Chiaki’s walls.”
Those words stayed with her all through the night and through the next two days and nights as the wind howled around her home but never loud enough to drown out the tortured cries of Lady Chiaki.
Kenji put another log on the fire and tried to coax the flames back to roaring life. They didn’t want to cooperate, the wood preferring to burn hot but dark. He desperately wanted the light. Lady Chiaki’s home was laid out to take in the best views of the mountainside and valley below, of the cedar trees all around. But that was all hidden from sight by the storm. Now it was like being in a very small box surrounded by billows of wind-carried snow anxious to get in and freeze them both, bury them in a snowy grave for some unlucky soul to find come spring.
Lady Chiaki laid on her mat nearby, quiet but not sleeping. The quiet times were growing shorter and rarer even as she grew more and more exhausted. Kenji didn’t know what he would do, but he sensed one way or another things were drawing to an end. The Lady Chiaki was weakening.
Giving up on the fire, Kenji turned back to the desk covered with scrolls, old texts and personal journals of Chiaki’s father and husband, although some places had a writing of a different hand, one he was certain was hers. There was a wealth of knowledge in this house, experiments tried, theories postulated and mulled over, old legends carefully picked apart for nuggets of real truth. He could spend a lifetime studying the work of just these two onmyoji.
But studying wasn’t enough. What was needed was skill, skill tested and honed. Skill Kenji might have a decade or two in the future but was just a shadow of a hope to him now.
Chiaki whimpered in pain, the sound as always containing the cackling laugh of the demon. Kenji knelt by her side, taking her hand. The nails were ripped down to the quick, a mercy since it kept her from tearing at her own skin.
“Milady, is there anything I can get you?”
“My husband, I need my husband.” The words were all but inaudible, lost in the sounds of the demon, but she had said them so many times in the last three days he could have guessed from less.
“Your husband is dead and gone, milady,” Kenji said, rubbing a shaking hand over his own tired eyes. He had tried to nap once. The demon had entered his dreams, had fought to hold him there. He had come close to not waking at all. He dared not nap again.
“Dead,” Chiaki moaned. “Not gone.”
Then the demon was clawing at him, teeth snapping at his face as he pinned her arms behind her. The demon was giving her inhuman strength but beneath that he felt the fragility of her old bones. It would be too easy to do her great harm. He wrapped his arms around her, hugging her tight and whispering the words of the binding spell he had long since tattooed on the base of her neck. It took longer each time, but eventually the episode passed. Kenji lowered her to the mat and stood up to stretch his aching muscles.
She had crafted a plan before they had even left Heian-Kyo. Kenji knew there was a reason she had asked for an onmyoji escort, more than the binding spell, but she hadn’t spoken of it. She must have intended to show him what to do when they got here. But by the time they reached their destination the constant battle she fought with the demon had taken its toll. She had too little mind left.
Kenji returned to the scrolls, to his fruitless search, but the last words she had spoken came back to him.
If there was one thing she kept trying to tell him past the demon, it was about her husband. Dead, but not gone. Was that the key?
Kenji put another log on the fire and tried once more to poke some life out of the dark embers. He wanted light to think.
Chiaki’s meaningful memories ended some time during the journey home, everything since then a fugue of nightmares that felt real and reality that felt like terrible illusion.
But this time when she awoke she felt different. The aches from repeatedly wrestling with a strong young man were as prominent as ever, the dry heat of her skin and the soreness where she’d scratched it raw the same. The demon was still there, jabbering to itself in the back of her mind, finding ways into her thoughts. What was different?
She was sitting up, that was new. Shitone cushions were stacked all around her to keep her upright like once she had propped up her baby son. She touched her face, felt fresh scratches crisscrossing the scabs of older ones, then short tendrils of hair brushed her fingers. She ran her hand over her head. Her hair was gone, cut unstylishly short as her husband had always worn his.
Just the thought of him and she knew why she’d awoken feeling stronger: his smell was all around her. She was wearing his clothes, the uniform of an onmyoji. The hat was on the floor before her; she picked it up and put it on her head.
“Is this right?” Kenji asked.
“Right enough,” Chiaki said. “I need his box.”
“Under the floorboard, there in the corner.”
Kenji followed her pointing finger, pulling back the mat and tapping the boards until he found the loose one.
“Do not give it to me yet,” Chiaki said when he tried to hand it to her. “There is a spell.”
“I didn’t see one,” Kenji said.
“I’ll write it for you,” Chiaki said, gesturing to the writing desk. He set it in front of her and she took up the brush and a slip of paper. Her hands shook and even when using her left hand to hold her right hand steady the characters collapsed on themselves.
“Can you read it?” she asked anxiously.
“Actually, yes,” Kenji said, examining the slip. “It looks like your husband’s writing.”
“No one could read Fumihiko’s writing,” Chiaki said.
“You could. And you left so many transcriptions on the margins of his scrolls I’ve learned to make out his scratchings myself.”
Chiaki looked around the room, but there was no hint how much time had passed. She didn’t even remembering arriving.
“The spell may take time,” she said as he knelt behind her.
“I have become a more patient man these last few days.”
“Has it been days? You sound years older, young Kenji.” He didn’t answer, just loosened the back of her robes to reach the crucial spot at the base of her neck where the binding spell held the demon. As the whispered words of the spell began she took up the box, the lacquer cool in her hands. She held it for a moment, remembering the day her husband had hidden it under the floor.
Then she lifted the lid.
Chiaki/Fumihiko opened their eyes. They could feel the soft touch of Kenji’s fingers at the base of their neck, the calligraphy beneath glowing warmly. But that binding spell was no longer wanted. They reached back, brushing aside the young onmyoji’s fingers, and wiped the tattoo away, flakes of ink falling from their hand in a sparkling mist that disappeared before reaching the floor. Kenji caught his breath but quickly resumed chanting the spell.
The demon sensed the spell’s disappearance but mistrusted it, like an animal in a cage mistrusts a suddenly unlocked door. Chiaki/Fumihiko had to dive in after it, following it through the dark caverns of blood vessels, past the voluminous chambers of the heart, up into the palace of the lungs with its rooms open to the gardens of wind, screens dancing in and out with each breath. There they caught the demon, so easily, and carried it with them out through the gardens to the path that became a lane that became a road that joined another road to become the grand highway of Heian-Kyo itself.
Chiaki/Fumihiko coughed, forcefully blowing the slimy mass of darkness out of their windpipe into the box and slamming shut the lid. This spell they could do themselves, passing a finger over the latch with a whisper of words of power. The box shook and the lacquer grew hot, but nothing further happened. Nothing further ever would.
Kenji hesitated for half a breath but continued with the spell. Chiaki/Fumihiko closed their eyes.
Chaiki opened her eyes in a place that wasn’t a place, although she could feel wind on her skin and smell cherry blossoms. It was warm, deliciously warm.
Fumihiko sat before her, a smile on his lips. He looked just as he had when she’d first met him, the young apprentice sent from Heian-Kyo to assist her father. It was a strange aspect to find him in, he had never noticed her when he was an apprentice and she was a girl of eight who was allowed to read all she liked provided she stay quiet and not disturb the work of the two onmyoji.
Chiaki reached up to touch her hair, hoping that she at least would look as she had when he had returned to her village at the death of her father. She had been an old maid of twenty then but that time he had noticed her.
The hair between her fingers was short. If fingers could see, she was sure they’d see silver.
“You look as you do in the world of the living,” Fumihiko said, guessing her thoughts. “You are not yet of this world.”
“Can’t I be?” Chiaki said, looking at her scarred hands, touching the scratches on her face. “I’m so very tired. I fought so hard.”
“I know. But not yet.”
“You were with me always?”
“Even when you knelt before Master Tadayuki himself. He’s his father all over again, isn’t he?”
“He wouldn’t listen to me,” Chiaki said. “He didn’t believe me when I said you truly were the one who always had the power.”
“We went through school together, and worked together in our younger days. You can see why he would doubt. I never had power until you guided me to it.”
“Nonsense,” Chiaki said, but blushed at the compliment.
“Your father understood onmyodo like no one I’ve ever known in that world or this, and yet he couldn’t explain it to others. His knowledge would have died with him, if not for you.”
“Perhaps,” Chiaki said. “I only made some notes. Found stories in older texts that explained things.”
“You did more than that, wife.”
“But now my life is empty,” Chiaki said. “My father, my son and now you all gone. There is nothing left for me to do there in the living world but wait to die. Why can’t I stay here with you? I’ve fought that demon for more than a month; as old as I am my body must be near death.”
“I won’t allow it,” Fumihiko.
“You have a job left to do. There is an apprentice to be taught.”
“Kenji? But he longs to return to Heian-Kyo. I don’t think a long apprenticeship to the wife of an onmyoji will hold much attraction for him.”
“I think you’ll be surprised. He’s spent days reading scrolls, trying to find a way to bring the demon out of you…”
“I needed you, but I didn’t know how to reach you.”
“He found a way. Clever fellow. And he has notebooks with him you’ll really want to see, the work of one who would have been a great onmyoji himself in other circumstances. You might have misjudged him, his interests and his skills. In any event, you have the winter to convince him to stay. You and the Lady Utsusemi.”
“What does she have to do with it?”
Fumihiko just smiled. And without meaning to Chiaki blinked, and the other world was gone.
She took off her husband’s hat and Kenji stopped chanting the spell. Chiaki turned to look at him. The youth who had trembled in the princess’s rooms while she tried and failed to bind the demon, when she fell back on the only thing she knew and took the demon inside of her, that youth was quite gone. Looking back at her now was an onmyoji.
“That was a spell of summoning,” she said, taking the slip of paper from his fingers. “It conjures ghosts; not the ghosts that wander lost through our world, but the ghosts we hold close inside ourselves.
“Would you like to learn how I assembled it?”
All of the exhaustion fled from Kenji’s eyes and he watched and listened attentively as she explained the characters that made up the spell that made one two-as-one.
Kate MacLeod’s work has previously appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Allegory, Beyond Centauri and in the Warrior Wisewoman 2 anthology.