Lady of the Ghost Willow

Issue #53, Second Anniversary Double-Issue

The remnants of my saké cask, like my sleep, had not lasted the night. Having no further means to drown my nightmares, I rose, dressed, and went out into the streets of the Capital. The night was at its darkest, lost like me in the time between dusk and dawn, when ghosts and demons came out of hiding and walked freely about the city. I had no care for that possibility, save that I could have used the distraction.

So when the shining figure with the appearance of a lady approached me, I was more curious than worried.

I stood at the highest point on Shijo Bridge. It was a good spot to view the moon, if there had been a moon to view at that hour. It was a decent tactical location in case of trouble, with only two directions to defend. She came out of the darkness and stood on the eastern end of the bridge in the direction of the place where cremations were done, beyond the city walls and the clustered temples specializing in funerals.

She was not a ghost, though someone less experienced in these matters could easily mistake her for one. The glow around her was very faint but easy to see, and there was a slight flutter in her step that gave her away. Not a ghost. A shikigami, a magical creature with little more reality than the scraps of paper used to create her and no independent will save that of her master, whoever that might be. Still, the person who created her had done a superb job.

I had seen shikigami that seemed little more than poorly manipulated puppets, but this one could easily pass for human. From the number of layers of her kimono down to the precise cut of her hair, she appeared exactly as one would expect of a well-born attendant to a noble family. Not that such a one would ever be abroad this time of night, and certainly not on foot and alone.

I turned my gaze back over the water, though I kept her image in the corner of my eye. “What do you want?”

She bowed to me then. “I am sent with a message for Yamada no Goji. I serve Fujiwara no Kinmei.”

The name was familiar. A high-ranking deputy to the Minister of the Right, if I recalled correctly. I had heard Prince Kanemore speak of him, and never disparagingly. Which was remarkable, considering His Highness’s general opinion of the Fujiwara. My curiosity was piqued.

“I am Yamada. How did you or your master know I would be here?”

She bowed again. “We did not. I was on my way to your lodgings when I found you here instead.”

That was plausible, since a Fujiwara compound was located in one of the southeastern wards not far from Gion.
“I will hear you.”

“May I approach? I do not wish to share my Master’s business with others.”

“Very well, but not too close.”

The last was simple caution. While this particular shikigami might resemble a delicate young woman, I had dealt with such before and knew better. She could very well have been an assassin, and such a charming one would have very little trouble reaching her intended victim under normal circumstances, but my instincts told me that this was not the case. I trusted my instincts...up to a point.

She approached to within ten feet and bowed again. I looked over her shoulder. “You have a companion.”

The shikigami frowned. “I came alone.”

“I don’t think this person bothered to ask permission.”

She followed my gaze. A rough-looking samaru was approaching behind her, his hand on the hilt of his sword. I sighed. It was ever thus when more than one or two of the provincial lords and their retinues were in the Capital on business. Many of them kept well-disciplined attendants, but not all. And many of those were not above a bit of nocturnal enrichment or forced pleasure, at opportunity. The shikigami and I must have appeared to represent both potentials. My long dagger was well concealed but within easy reach. I only hoped the ruffian was no more skilled than he appeared.

He spoke to the messenger, though his eyes were on me. “Woman, behave yourself and nothing too unpleasant will happen to you. I must deal with your friend first.”

The shikigami smiled at me as the man pushed past her. “Please, my lord. Allow me.”

If this shikigami was anything like those I’d tangled with before, the samaru was in more trouble than he knew. I grunted assent and the samuru’s eyes grew wide as he felt himself gripped from behind by the apparently frail woman. In another moment he cleared the bridge railing like a drunken crane who’d forgotten how to fly. I counted to three before I heard the splash. The shikigami held the samaru’s sword in her hands.

“What shall I do with this?”

I glanced at the sword. “A poor quality blade,” I said. “He may keep it.”

Soon there was another, smaller splash. The messenger then turned back to me and spoke as if nothing unusual had happened at all.

“My master wishes your assistance in a rather delicate matter. He believes a friend of his has been cursed. His own arts have proved ineffective, and even the priests have been confounded. My master does not know where else to turn. Will you speak to him?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I believe I will.”

My surmise about the location of Fujiwara no Kinmei proved accurate. According to the shikigami, he currently held sole possession of the mansion in the southeastern ward, as his uncle Fujiwara no Shintaro was away on a diplomatic assignment to the north.

She brought me to the north gate where I stated my business to the old man who kept watch there. I heard a faint rustle beside me and the messenger was gone. All I saw was a piece of folded paper that quickly blew away down the street on a freshening breeze.

The servant escorted me into the compound. He barely spoke at all and made no comment on the disappearance of my companion. I imagined that such sights were not unknown to him.

Lord Kinmei was waiting for me in the main wing of the house. At this hour there was no one else stirring, no doubt part of his intention in sending such a late summons. We had never met before, so we took a moment to study each other. I could only imagine how I must have appeared to him, in my threadbare robes and ungroomed state. For his part he was elegantly but simply dressed. I judged him perhaps thirty years old, handsome, but little else seemed there to read. He offered me saké, which I refused, though it pained me to do so. Considering my reputation, I expected him to be surprised, but if so he didn’t show it. He beckoned me to an empty cushion and sat down himself.

“Forgive my late summons, but under the circumstances it seemed best. I trust my servant told you my purpose?”

“In general terms, my lord, but not many specifics. You have a friend who is cursed?”

The man sighed. “I call it that for want of a better word. I would say ‘haunted,’ but that is impossible.”

“How so?”

“As you may know, I am a man of some influence. My friend in turn is a man of good family and some wealth. He has had priests and monks alike place spirit wards at all points of access to his home, and I myself have brought in exorcists of great skill to watch over him. Yet despite both our efforts, a spirit has been seen walking his compound at night, apparently with impunity.”

“What sort of spirit?”

“A female, as best anyone can tell. At first glance she appears totally unremarkable, yet the witnesses who have encountered her up close swear that she has no face. They see only a blank white mask where the face should be.”

“And there are no exorcists on duty when this happens?”

He smiled then. “You must not think me so negligent of my friend’s health, Lord Yamada. Twice the spirit has been trapped and banished to whence it came, yet it always returns again on another night as if nothing had happened. After each visit my friend’s condition worsens. I have sutras being read at half the temples in the Capital. Nothing seems to help.”

That was indeed puzzling. My friend Kenji, though lacking in most other attributes of a priest, was one of the finest exorcists I knew, and I had never known a spirit that he had exorcized fail to remain exorcised. I had no doubt those engaged by Lord Kinmei were of equal or greater skill. Besides, any competent priest could create a barrier that would be proof against spirits of the dead or even minor demons. Still, I found myself wishing that Kenji was not currently on a pilgrimage to Mount Hiea. His bursts of actual piety were infrequent but seldom convenient for all that.

“Lord Kinmei, before we go any further, I must ask you a question: why did you send a shikigami to fetch me? Have you no other servants?”

He smiled again. “Many. But none I would send into the streets of the Capital at this demon-infested hour.”

“Also, this way, clearly yet without saying a word, you demonstrated that you are not without skill in supernatural matters. So I would understand that your need must indeed be great to seek me out.”

Lord Kinmei bowed slightly. “It’s true that I am not without my resouces, Lord Yamada. Chinese magic is a slightly disreputable pursuit for one such as I, of course, but useful. Yet you can also see that my...intervention, in this matter, must remain at a discreet level. You have quite a reputation, Lord Yamada.”

“For saké?”

A bit blunt on my part, but I preferred honesty in these sort of dealings, to the degree that was possible. It prevented many a misunderstanding later.

“That as well,” Kinmei admitted, “but also for discretion. The saké I do not care about, save that it not interfere with your services.”

“It will not. Now, then, is it my aid or my advice you seek?”

“Both. For which I am quite willing to pay two casks of rice from the first harvest of my western farms, plus five bolts of blue silk and one bar of gold to the weight of twenty Chinese coins.”

I kept my face blank with an effort. Such would pay off all my current debts plus support me comfortably for an entire year. More, if I were sensible, though of course I would not be.

“Your terms are acceptable. I will require a written introduction to your friend, along with his co-operation. You can start by telling me his name.”

“You’ll understand that I could not say until we had agreed, but he is Minamoto no Akio. He is a member of the Emperor’s guard, though at present he is on leave for his health. All is easily arranged. He will listen to my wishes in this. Do you have any thoughts on the problem at this point?”

The victim was unknown to me, but I felt sure I could find out more from Prince Kanemore if need compelled. That would not be necessary, if Kinmei was being as honest with me as he seemed to be. “A few. But first I must ask you an indelicate question: to your knowledge, is your friend prone to intemperate love affairs?”

Kinmei smiled again, though I felt that he almost laughed. “Akio has never been prone to intemperance of any kind, Lord Yamada. He is quite likely the most serious, dutiful man I have ever met. He has only one...attachment, that I am aware of.”

“Do you know her name? Where the lady might be found?”

Kinmei sighed. “I’m sorry, but such is Lord Akio’s discretion that I barely know of her existence. Why do you ask?”

“Because of the nature of the attacks. Now, one possibility is that the ghost enters his compound by avoiding the barriers.”

“Certainly, but how? The priests are quite diligent, I assure you.”

“By the simple expedient of already being within his compound. If the grave is located on the premises, even an exorcist would not send her far.”

From the expression on Kinmei’s face it was obvious that the possibility had never occurred to him. “Far-fetched,” he said at last, “but certainly possible. That must be considered.”

“The other possibility is that we’re not dealing with a ghost in the normal sense at all, which is why I asked about his love affairs, meaning no disrespect. Our creature could be an ikiryo.”

He frowned. “Ikiryo? You mean the vengeful spirit of a living person?”

I was not surprised that he had heard of such things, but again it was clear the possibility had not occurred to him before now. No wonder. Such instances were extremely rare, and the most famous one of all never actually happened, unless the lady known as Murasaki Shikibu’s account of a feckless prince’s life was more true than was commonly believed.

“Even so,” he said. “I consider that even less likely than finding a grave on the grounds.”

“Jealousy and anger are powerful emotions and can arise even in the best of people. Like the Lady of the Sixth Ward herself, whoever is doing this might not even be aware of it.” I made the reference to the Genji Monogatari in the full confidence that he would understand it, nor was I disappointed.

“The Lady of the Sixth Ward wrought great harm to the Shining Prince’s loved ones all unawares. So. We must consider all possibilities, not only for Akio’s sake but the future happiness of our two families. Suzume especially.”

I frowned. “Your pardon, Lord Kinmei, but I don’t know who you mean.”

“Fujiwara no Suzume. My younger sister, Lord Yamada. Once Akio has recovered his health, he and Suzume are to be married.”

It occurred to me that, if Lady Suzume had been the “attachment” to which Lord Kinmei referred, he would know more of the matter than he was telling. Again, my instincts spoke against that. Which left the matter of Lord Akio’s lover a question that would need answering.

It took a little while for the introductions and arrangements to be made, so by the time I arrived at Akio’s family compound on the sixth avenue south of Gion, his condition had worsened and he was unable to receive visitors. He had been placed in the east wing of the mansion, and I could plainly hear the drones of the priests reciting sutras. No expense had been spared, though so far to no good affect.

As evening fell again, I toured the grounds in the company of an aged senior priest named Nobu. I told him of my suspicions, and he considered them in silence for several moments.

“A burial in a place meant for the living would be most unusual,” he said. “One that would occur only in circumstances that were themselves...unusual.”

I smiled then. I was beginning to like the old priest. “We must speak frankly to one another,” I said. “You mean either a burial from ancient times...or a murder.”

“Lord Akio’s family have long been patrons of my temple. I would not accuse this great and noble house of such a thing,” Nobu said.

“Nor would I. It’s possible the grave exists without their knowledge. So it would be in their interest that we find it and remove it, if such a grave does in fact exist.”

In some ways Nobu reminded me of Kenji, at least in the sense that I always had when watching a master at work. In a very short span of time I saw that Lord Kinmei’s confidence had not been misplaced. Nobu worked the area of the compound with the tools of his profession, and I with mine. He counted the beads on his prayer necklace while keeping up a steady chant as he paced the length and breadth of the grounds like a water-diviner. For my part I kept a close watch for rising miasmas and the blink of corpse lights. When we met back near the front gate, we had both come to the same conclusion.

Nobu sighed. “Nothing, Lord Yamada. I can find no grave here.”

“I agree. Which is a shame, really. A grave would have been easier to deal with.”

“A proper cremation. A proper funeral ritual and reburial with respect. Even someone torn from this world by violence could be appeased on that score,” he said. “Pity.”

“So that leaves us with the second possibility that I mentioned.”

“My wager,” the old priest said, “would have been on the grave. Lord Yamada, I’ve known young Akio all his life. It simply makes no sense to me that anyone would harbor this level of ill-feeling towards him, consciously or not. He’s as decent a man as I’ve ever known.”

“Someone clearly does...and that someone is here!”

I spotted the faintly glowing figure only a moment before Nobu did. I sprinted toward the veranda of the east wing, with the priest, for all his years, barely three paces behind me.

The ghost was exactly as had been described. It was dressed in flowing white robes, as for a funeral, though it was hard to make out any specific details of the garb. Its long, unconfined black hair twisted and flowed in the freshening breeze as if it were a separate thing with its own will, framing a face of no features. No eyes, nose, mouth, just a white emptiness that was more chilling than the most ferocious devil-mask.

I put myself between the thing and the house with no clear idea of what I was going to do, even as it was almost upon me. I had amulets for protection against ordinary spirits, but I wasn’t sure they would serve here.

I never got the chance to find out, for in another moment Nobu was beside me. I expected him to begin the rite of exorcism, but instead he produced a strip of paper and slapped it directly onto the creature’s empty face. In another moment it had vanished, and only then did Nobu sink slowly to the ground, his chest heaving.

“Are you all right?” I asked. I started to help him up, but he waved me off.

“I think I will live, Lord Yamada, but one of my age should not run so much. Give me a moment.”

I waited until Nobu’s breathing—and my own—had returned to something closer to normal, then I helped him to stand again. “What did you use on that thing?”

“A seal more appropriate for a powerful kami rather than a simple ghost. Which, if you are correct, this thing is not. After seeing the result, I’m inclined to agree. Do you think I destroyed it?”

So my suspicions were confirmed. A powerful spirit but a ghost of the living, not the dead. Ikiryo. I shook my head. “A friend of mine once helped me contain a shapeshifter’s power with something similar, but more likely you banished it temporarily, much like the previous exorcisms. I believe it will return.”

“I can replace the wards on Akio’s room with these,” he said. “I have just enough left. But he can’t stay in that room forever. I’ll send to Enryaku Temple tonight for more seals, but I’m not sure how long these will last. The wards are strongest when first used. Their power fades over time.”

“If I can find the source of the ikiryo, that will be a moot point,” I said. “And to do that, I have to learn more about who Lord Akio’s unseen enemy might be. I may need to search his private quarters.”

Nobu hesitated. “Lord Kinmei trusts you and thus so must I, but I would be remiss in my duties to the family if I allowed you to rifle through Akio’s belongings without supervision.”

I had no argument with that condition. I waited while he changed the defenses of Lord Akio’s sick room. When he returned he looked relieved.

“Lord Akio is sleeping peacefully. Whatever the creature meant to do, I believe it was thwarted tonight.”

“Then let us hope I find something that will help keep it away permanently.”

I allowed Nobu to escort me to the young master’s private rooms and remain with me as I searched. I opened and closed several chests, but most contained extra clothes and such and were of little interest. In truth, very little that was obvious to me on first inspection was of interest. I stopped, considering what I might have missed.

“It might help if you told me what sort of thing you’re looking for,” Nobu said.

I sighed. “The only way I could tell you would be if I’d already found it.”

I took another long look around the room. Like a tiny insect crawling on my arm, a thing scarcely noticed save for the itch, something was bothering me. Something was...missing.

“Your master is of the royal court and yet not literate?”

Nobu scowled. “Illiterate? Nonsense! Even the Emperor has remarked on Akio’s skill as a poet.”

“Then where is his writing table?”

Nobu’s scowl deepened, then suddenly cleared away. “Oh! It was brought to his sick room. I think its presence was meant to comfort him.”

“I need to see it, but I do not wish to disturb the young man’s sleep.”

“We should be able to bring it out for you. Come with me.”

Akio’s quarters were in the west wing of the mansion. We made our way through the corridor, into the main house, then out into the east wing. There were few servants about, mostly women, and they moved silently on their own errands with barely a glance at us. As we grew closer to the sick room, the chanting of the monks grew louder, though the sound remained somewhat muted in order to not awaken Akio.

Nobu left me where three priests sat in prayer, and a female attendant slid the screen aside for him to enter the room. In a few moments he returned, bearing the writing table.

It was of fine make, lacquered and painted with scenes of mountains and rivers and set at the perfect height for a kneeling man to use. There was a small chest attached for his inkstones and brushes and a separate drawer for paper. All was in good condition and in order, though it was also clear that the table and its implements had seen heavy use.

There were also several cubbyholes containing scrolls. Nobu looked unhappy but said nothing as I pulled each out in turn and examined it. Drafts of poems, mostly completed. I read a few and silently agreed with Nobu’s opinion—Lord Akio clearly was a talented poet and could no doubt hold his own or better at court, where nearly all written communication of importance was in poetic form. I soon found a common reference in several completed poems and a few drafts. I showed them to Nobu.

“Lord Akio uses the expression ‘Lady of the Ghost Willow’ more than once. There’s also a few references to a ‘Lady of the Morning Iris.’ Do you know who he meant?” I asked, but Nobu just shrugged.

“I’m afraid the references have no meaning to me,” he said.

“The poems I showed you are Lord Akio’s work, are they not?”

“Of course. Why do you ask?”

I held a piece of paper which, as the wrinkles and creases clearly showed, had been folded into a thin strip and tied into a knot. “To be certain.” I showed him the bit of writing on that paper. “Is this your master’s calligraphy?”

Nobu was looking decidedly uncomfortable. “No. I don’t recognize the hand, though I think I’ve seen it before. What is it?”

“A letter...or rather, a poem.”

“Lord Yamada, this is all really improper. These poems are private correspondence.”

“I agree. Yet I’m afraid that this is my main virtue, for the missions I’ve undertaken: I’m willing to be improper as the need arises. And in this case, the need is that I read these private communications on the chance that they will tell me something that can help Lord Akio.”

Nobu’s scowl deepened, but he did not object further. I flattened out the paper as much as possible and read what was written there:

The humbled swordsman

Once proud, a blade cut his sleeve

Now wet with the dew.

The tanka was written in a delicate, refined script and was incomplete. Normally the one who received such a poem would write two lines to complete the form and return it to the sender. I had no way of knowing if the poem had been intended for Akio or whether he had replied.

I had little talent for poetry, but my instruction in the classic metaphors was probably no less extensive than Akio’s. The poem was both an entreaty and a question; that much was clear. But what was the answer? One who might be able to tell me was beyond speech now and might be for some time, if not forever. I wondered if there was anyone aside from Akio who might know.

“Lord Akio is safe for the moment,” I said. “I must leave now and get a little sleep before I return to Lord Kinmei’s house tomorrow. Please return this table to its rightful place.”

Nobu looked at me. “Tomorrow? But it’s my understanding that Lord Kinmei left for Enrakyu Temple to pray for Lord Akio’s health this very morning. He won’t be back until the day after. And even then he plans to stay here, rather than at his own home. He wishes to be present if...when, his friend awakens.”

“Perfect, since it is Fujiwara no Suzume I need to speak with.”

“His sister? May I ask why?”

“Because it’s possible that she knows more about this matter than her brother does.”

It was mid-morning before Fujiwara no Suzume was ready to receive me. I was ushered into the main reception hall. There was a low dais on which a translucent curtain of silk had been hung. Lady Suzume kneeled on a cushion behind that curtain, with two female attendants flanking her at a discreet distance. I could see the outlines of her small form but few details. It would have taken a far more intimate connection than the one I had to be allowed to see her face.

“My brother left instructions to the household that we refuse no reasonable request from you,” she said without preamble. “What do you wish of me, Lord Yamada?”

Straight to the point. I know she was trying to be rude, but at the moment such directness served my needs admirably.

“Please forgive my intrusion, but there are some questions I need to ask you, for Lord Akio’s sake.”

“Akio? What can I tell you that would be of help?”

Was that actual concern in her voice? I had to admit that it at least sounded that way. “I understand that you were promised to Lord Akio.”

“I am still promised to Lord Akio,” she replied, with some of the coldness I had originally felt returning to her voice. “And if it be the will of Heaven that promise will be honored. Akio’s father and my uncle have both approved the match.”

“Is that your will as well?”

There was a long silence. Thanks to the curtain I couldn’t tell if she was shocked or merely trying not to laugh.

“What has that to do with the matter, Lord Yamada? You know the law as well as I.”

“Of course, my lady. But that was not my question.”

There was an even longer silence, then she turned to her two attendants. “You are both to withdraw to just beyond the doorway. Keep us in sight, as is proper, but no more.”

They both bowed and obeyed, though without a great deal of enthusiasm. When they were clearly out of earshot, Lady Suzume beckoned me closer. She then pulled the two halves of the curtain apart, only a little, but it was enough that I could finally see the woman kneeling behind the curtain, and the sight was very familiar. Easily explained: her resemblance to her brother was quite striking. She was, in her own way, as beautiful as he was handsome. She also seemed to be his model for the shikigami who had served as his messenger earlier.

“I had to see your face, Lord Yamada. Forgive me, but some matters cannot be judged by words alone through a veil.”

I had of course seen the veil as a hindrance to myself, but now I understood that hindrance worked both ways. “I am honored.”

“Not by my own inclination. Your reputation is unsavory at best, but I want you to understand that I will do anything I can to be of service to Lord Akio. Anything, and that includes answering your rather impertinent question, Lord Yamada—yes, it is my will. Akio and my brother grew up together and were inseparable, and so Lord Akio in turn was like an older brother to me. My affection for him has only increased over the years. He is the kindest, gentlest man I have ever known.”

“So you are...content, to be Lord Akio’s wife?”

She did laugh then, demurely covering her mouth with her fan. “‘Content’? Lord Yamada, I have lived in terror of some of the marriages my family contemplated for me. Yet when my uncle gave me the news that I was for Akio instead, I counted myself thrice blessed! He is a good man, a friend, and will treat me well. I cannot believe the gods would be so cruel as to offer me such happiness and then snatch it from me before I have even touched it.”

I, on the other hand, had no trouble at all believing that they would do such, and worse besides. I had seen it, and not from nearly as far a distance as I would have liked. Which was another reason I did not want to follow my current path but did not see much in the way of alternatives. I did note that Lady Suzume never said that she loved him, but perhaps in her view that was entirely beside the point.

“Forgive me, Lady Suzume, but you do know that he has other attachments?”

For the space of a dozen heartbeats, there was almost absolute silence. “What of it?” she asked, finally, and I could not imagine the snows of Hokkaido containing any more chill than the one in her voice.

“So you did know.”

“Of course I knew! It was my business to know. What I do not know is why you’re asking me this.”

“Again I must beg your indulgence, but I did ask for a reason.”

She closed the curtain again. “I am not curious about that reason. If there is more to the matter, I suggest you consult the so-called ‘Lady of the Ghost Willow” for yourself.”

So she even knew her rival’s poetic euphemism. I should have been surprised, but I was not. “No one seems to know who she is.”

I thought she was going to laugh, call me an idiot, or both. “I assume you’ve seen Lord Akio’s poems, or you wouldn’t be asking me about this woman. I believe he also refers to her as ‘Morning Iris.’ Put it together, Lord Yamada.”

I frowned. Morning Iris? Ghost willow? For a moment I just stared at her. Then I almost called myself an idiot. “The tree called the ghost willow is ‘yanagi,’ and it’s also a family name. Iris is ‘ayame,’ a flower and also a woman’s name. ‘Lady of the Ghost Willow.’ I’m looking for a woman named Yanagi no Ayame.”

I couldn’t see her smile, but I knew it was there. “So you’re not a complete fool. That’s good to know, since you seem to be our only hope for Lord Akio’s deliverance. You will find a way to save him, Lord Yamada. I hope there is no misunderstanding between us on this.”

At that point I did not think there was. “Everything I do now is in the service of Lord Akio’s deliverance, Lady Suzume.”

“Then I humbly suggest you stop wasting my lord’s time. The woman you seek lives in the Fifth Ward. If you need answers, she’s more likely to possess them than I.”

The Yanagi family compound had seen better days. The walls had been patched in several places; the gate swung uneasily on rusty hinges. Yet the patching was of fine workmanship, and if the hinges were rusted the gate itself had been recently repaired.

An old woman, whom I soon learned was the only retainer remaining, closed the gate behind us and led me through the dilapidated garden. A very old willow, the sort with long, trailing limbs and known commonly known as a ‘ghost willow,’ had pride of place there, such that it was, doubtless due to its family association. Such trees were often the haunts of yokai and ghosts, and considered unlucky. When I saw the state of the Lady of the Morning Iris’s home, I was inclined to agree.

Whatever lowly condition the family had come to, etiquette itself had not been abandoned. I was led to an audience with Yanagi no Ayame that, at least so far as the procedures and forms were concerned, was little different than the one earlier with Lady Suzume. Only this time, the curtains were not opened. Yet their threadbare state did give me a glimpses of the woman on the opposite side of the veil from time to time.

She was about Suzume’s age or perhaps a bit younger. Her kimono and green Chinese overjacket were of fine quality, and if the kimono was a little worn, the overjacket was obviously new. Ayame herself was a lovely, delicate woman, though with little of the serenity of Lady Suzume.

“Thank you for receiving me. I am Lord Yamada.”

Yanagi no Ayame was worried, and she didn’t bother to conceal it. “I apologize for our current surroundings, Lord Yamada, but as you see, maintenance has been impossible until recently.”

“That is of no consequence. Thank you for receiving me under these circumstances.”

“Your messenger barely preceded you within the hour, so I must ask you: is there any further news of Lord Akio?”

“He yet lives, but his health is grave. Surely you knew of this before my messenger arrived?”

“I only knew....” Her voice trailed off. “That is....”

I didn’t want to embarrass her, but I didn’t have the time to dance around the matter all evening. Nor, I was certain, did Lord Akio. “You only knew that he had not visited or written to you in the last several days, yes?”

“Yes,” she said, so softly I barely heard her. “In my loneliness I was afraid he had forgotten me.”

Attachments among the nobility tended to follow set protocols: in the case of a formal alliance, the man would visit his love openly, and any children produced would be immediately acknowledged. If there was no formal understanding, the visits would of course be more discreet, whatever the outcome, including children. I was fairly certain that Lord Akio’s relationship with the “Lady of the Ghost Willow” fell into the informal second category, whatever their feelings toward each other might be.

“I realize it is both painful and indelicate to speak of such things, so I must ask your forgiveness in advance. I have Lord Akio’s welfare at heart.”

“As do I, Lord Yamada. He has been very kind to me in my troubles, and if I can be of service to him now, I will. But I don’t know what I can tell you that may be of help.”

“Perhaps we may discover something together. Now then: you say you did not know of Lord Akio’s condition. Did you also not know that he is engaged to Lady Fujiwara no Suzume?”

She sighed. “That I did know. He told me himself some weeks ago.”

That got my attention. “If I may ask, what was his purpose in telling you?”

She frowned slightly. “It may surprise you, Lord Yamada, considering the differences in circumstances between me and my lord, but we had...have few secrets between us. He told me of his father’s decision because he thought I had the right to know.”

I was beginning to wonder how the ikiryo was managing to harm Lord Akio in the first place. The more I heard of the man, the more I expected him to be surrounded by the divine protective glow of saintly purity. I dismissed the thought as unworthy, and wondered if I was beginning to feel jealous of him.

“I could understand one being angry at such news,” was all I said.

Through one of the rips in the curtain, I clearly saw Ayame frown. “Why should I be angry? It is a good match; I know he has always been fond of Lady Suzume and her brother. He often spoke of them. They’ve been friends since they were children.”

“And you had no ambitions of one day occupying the place that Lady Suzume will soon take by his side?”

Ayame was silent for several heartbeats. “That was always impossible,” she finally said, her voice barely audible.

“I can see how your current circumstances would be a hindrance, but are you certain? Did Akio never speak to his family on your behalf?”

Silence again. Then, “Lord Yamada, you misunderstand. When I refer to ‘my circumstances,’ it is not my obvious poverty that is the obstacle. It is the fact that my father and brother were both carried off by a demon of disease when I was fifteen. I have no other brothers or male cousins.”

As with Lady Suzume, again I felt like a complete fool. Under both law and custom, Ayame was unable to speak for herself in these matters. Only her father or any surviving male relative of age could grant her permission to marry. And there was none.

“You are the last of your family, aren’t you?”

“Do not think me despairing, Lord Yamada. I may yet have children, so in some fashion the Yanagi Clan may survive. But I can never formally marry. When the time came, I couldn’t even offer myself to Lord Akio freely. I had to beg him to force me, so that I would not offend my father’s spirit by usurping his prerogative.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, though the word seemed like nothing.

“I do not need your pity, Lord Yamada. I need for you to understand me. If Lord Akio did not marry Suzume, he would marry another. If the gods will that this be the end of our love, then it will be so. But I do not think that will be the case. Perhaps that hope is an illusion, but I will cling to it. Now. Is there anything else?”

“No, Lady Ayame.”

“Then this audience is at an end.”

On the evening of the third day I found Nobu pacing the perimeter of the mansion, his prayer beads in hand. “I’m glad you’ve returned,” he said. “I think we’ll need all the aid we can find.”

“Did the creature return last night?”

“Yes, but the seals held. It didn’t get in. But I warned you that the seals were losing potency, and my messengers have not yet returned from Enryaku Temple. If they don’t come after tonight we’ll be back to bare exorcism.”

“You have no seals at all?”

He grunted. “Only two that I still trust, but that’s not enough to secure the chamber where Lord Akio is being tended.”

I breathed a silent prayer of thanks to whoever might be listening. “Two may be just enough. Has Lord Kinmei returned?”

“Yes, though he was weary from his journey. I believe he is asleep in Lord Akio’s chambers, since they were not otherwise in use. Shall I awaken him?”

“No, but I would like to check on him. First give me one of the wards, just in case I meet the creature before you do. You take the other and keep watch. I’ll be back shortly.”

There was an attendant at the door. I ordered him to go join the guard around the room where Lord Akio was confined, and when he was gone I slipped inside the room where Lord Kinmei was sleeping. I tarried there for a few moments but was careful not to awaken him, and then I left as quietly as I could and returned to where Nobu and the others kept watch outside Lord Akio’s sick room. On my way back I saw the ghostly figure floating across the ground in the courtyard.

“The ikiryo is coming,” I said.

In an instant Nobu had the spirit ward in his hand. “You saw it? Where?”

“Close by. Be prepared.”

The ikiryo manifested just beyond the veranda, in manner and appearance exactly the same as I had seen it two nights before. It floated toward Lord Akio’s sick room as if it didn’t even notice us. I wondered if perhaps that was indeed the case. I leaned close to Nobu.

“Once the seal is placed, be prepared to move quickly.”

He started to ask me something, doubtless to inquire what I was talking about, but there was no time. He stepped into the spirit’s path and placed his last remaining ward.

“Hsssss....”

I have no idea how the creature hissed like a cat with no visible mouth, but then I halfway expected the thing to be stronger than before. Nonetheless, Nobu’s spirit seal performed its duties admirably, and the creature began to fade. I turned to the other priests and attendants nearby as I took a torch out of the hands of one startled servant. “Stay here. Make sure no one approaches Lord Akio until we return. Master Nobu, follow me!”

I saw the confusion on the old man’s face but he didn’t hesitate. I sprinted down the corridor, across the main wing and back into the west wing of the mansion with Nobu close behind.

“Is Lord Kinmei...in danger as well?” he managed to gasp.

“Extremely so!”

There was a bewildered attendant at the door to Lord Akio’s quarters where Lord Kinmei was sleeping. I sent him off to join the guard around Lord Akio’s sick room.

“Why did you send him away?” Nobu asked as I slid the door aside.

“So he wouldn’t see this,” I said.

Lord Kinmei lay on his bedding right where I’d left him, still fast asleep, only now the ikiryo hovered above him, its no-face mere inches from his face. Nobu grabbed his prayer beads and immediately began a rite of exorcism, but I stopped him.

“If you value Lord Kinmei’s life, wait,” I said.

Nobu stared at me, uncomprehending, but there wasn’t time for questions. I darted forward and slapped Lord Kinmei awake.

“What—?”

He started to scramble to his feet but I held him down. “Look, Lord Kinmei. Look at it.”

Despite his obvious fear, he did as I commanded, and comprehension finally came. “Is this...?”

“Yes, my lord. It is.”

“I-I swear I didn’t know. I didn’t mean....”

“I know.”

I reached forward and plucked Nobu’s last remaining spirit seal, the one he’d given me earlier, from Lord Kinmei’s chest where I’d left it after I saw the ikiryo emerge from him only few minutes before. With the barrier dissolved, the ikiryo returned to its rightful place inside Lord Kinmei as the man began to weep.

I joined the guard surrounding Lord Akio until Nobu returned to fetch me later in the evening. “He’s ready to receive you now.”

“How is he?”

“Devastated, as one might expect. He wants to become a monk.”

“Do you think that’s a wise decision?”

He smiled. “As a rule? Yes. But he’s in no condition to be making that choice now. Besides, his father requires heirs to the clan line and would never allow it. He’s in negotiations for an arranged marriage even as we speak.”

“Hmmmm.”

Nobu smiled. “Lord Yamada, I have been a spiritual counselor to both families for a long time. Do you think I didn’t know of Lord Kinmei’s inclinations? This does not change the fact that he is a loyal son and will do what is expected of him. But the ikiryo? That I did not know, or even suspect, but at least I understand now why you halted my exorcism.”

I sighed. “I’ve often asked you to trust me during this time, but now it seems that I must trust you, Master Nobu. You are quite correct. With the ‘grave’ of the spirit blocked, an exorcism might have worked too well, and Lord Kinmei would have lost that part of himself forever. I’ve seen that happen once before, and I’d call the result an improvement. But in this case? I think we would have done irreparable harm.”

“Perhaps we already have. Is this really necessary?”

“‘A poisoned wound never heals.’ Lord Akio will recover. Now we must make sure Lord Kinmei does the same.”

Lord Kinmei was waiting for us in Akio’s quarters. Upon first glance, I’d say “devastated” was an understatement. At that moment Lord Kinmei had to be the most miserable human being I’d ever seen, and that included my own reflection. There were cushions there on the floor by the bedding, and he motioned for Nobu and me to sit.

“I will never forgive myself, Lord Yamada,” he said without preamble. “When I think of what I almost did....but I didn’t know. How did you?”

“In order to answer that, I must ask you a question or two yet. Are you prepared?”

He took a long breath and then indicated assent. I recited the unfinished poem I’d found in Lord Akio’s writing table. “That was yours, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, Lord Yamada.”

“The allusion to the cut sleeve was obvious, a reference to shared love between men that has been used in poetry since ancient times. But Lord Akio did not return your affections, did he?”

There were tears in Lord Kinmei’s eyes. “Lord Akio has great regard for me, as one might a brother. My feelings for him were...are, deeper. No, Lord Yamada, he did not share those feelings.”

“There is much I don’t understand,” Nobu said, “but I realize now that the attacks began only after Akio’s engagement to Suzume was formalized. Why was she not attacked instead?”

I smiled then. “Obviously, because Lord Akio’s upcoming marriage was an accident of timing, not the cause. Would you agree, Lord Kinmei?”

He looked at the floor. “I had no reason to resent my sister. If Akio had truly returned my affections, the technicality of a wife would not prevent our relationship, just as it does not for other men and women whose affections are elsewhere, whatever their inclinations.”

I nodded. “In truth, even after the poem, I tended to suspect that Suzume might be the real culprit. The appearance of the spirit was...ambiguous, and the death of the groom is one sure way to prevent an undesired marriage.”

Kinmei sighed. “May I ask how Suzume convinced you of her innocence?”

“At the end of our audience she told me to find a way to save Lord Akio,” I said.

Now Nobu scowled. “You believed her? Just because of a plea?”

I almost laughed. “Plea? No, Master Nobu—it was a command. With, I might add, implied consequences for failure.”

Kinmei managed a weak smile. “Even as a child, Suzume was never easily nor lightly thwarted.”

I bowed. “Thus your sister thoroughly squelched any suspicion that the match was undesirable in her eyes. With that fact established, the nature of the ghost itself argued against her involvement. If the ikiryo had awakened within Lady Suzume, it would certainly have gone after the Lady of the Ghost Willow, not Lord Akio.”

“You found her?” Nobu asked. “Then how did you know that she was not the culprit?”

“Suzume’s innocence argued for that of Lord Akio’s lover as well. An ikiryo is a very special sort of assassin, conjured in a moment of great emotional upheaval, which by then I was certain that Suzume only experienced after the first attacks, not before. The Lady of the Ghost Willow knew about the marriage arrangement long before Lord Akio was attacked, which likewise removed the heat of passion as an issue. I’m afraid, Lord Kinmei, that left only you.”

“I want to die,” he said.

Nobu glared at me, but I just smiled again. “Why? For saving Lord Akio’s life?”

Lord Kinmei stared at me as if I’d slapped him. “For...? I almost killed him!”

I shook my head. “No, my lord. Your resentments, your jealousy, those powerful emotions that sometimes get out of our control almost killed him. But you? That part that is and always remains Fujiwara no Kinmei felt nothing but love and concern for your friend. You almost certainly prevented his death as if you’d shielded him with your own body.”

Tears were streaming down his face now. “How? How did I do this?”

“You summoned me. With all due respect to Master Nobu and his associates, if you had not done so, Lord Akio would likely be dead now.”

“That is no more than simple truth,” Nobu said ruefully.

Lord Kinmei would not meet my gaze. “You are kind,” he said.

I shook my head. “No, my lord, I am not. As Master Nobu just pointed out, I have told you the truth, no more and no less. If there is any kindness here, you must find it for yourself.”

“But what must I do now? Akio remains in danger so long as I live!”

Nobu bowed. “With respect, I rather doubt that.”

I nodded. “Again, Master Nobu speaks truly. An ikiryo feeds on repressed resentments, unacknowledged emotions. That was why I sealed you off, so it could not return to you without your full awareness. Now you know, and that changes everything. I do not believe the creature will return. If you can make peace with yourself now, I guarantee it will not.”

“I will speak to your father,” Nobu said. “I’m sure he will approve a time of retreat at Enryaku Temple. You will not be taking the tonsure, mind, but you can rest and recover and, most of all, satisfy yourself that there is no danger. If anything were to happen, we would be prepared.”

“What do you think, Lord Yamada?” Kinmei asked.

I grunted. “I think you should listen to a man who understands spiritual matters better than I do, and that man is sitting beside me.”

I took my leave of Nobu and Lord Kinmei then. My duties were at an end, but for someone like Master Nobu, they had just begun. I rather thought he had a more difficult mission than mine, but then perhaps his rewards were, eventually, greater.

It wasn’t very late. I looked up into clear evening sky, and then smiled and headed toward Shijo Bridge while there was still time. Lord Kinmei was a man of his word, and I had no doubt that my payment would arrive soon, and then there would be saké.

Right now, there was a lovely moon.


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Richard Parks is an ex-pat Southerner now living in central New York state with his wife and a couple of grumpy cats. He is the author of the Yamada Monogatari series, just concluded with Yamada Monogatari: The Emperor in Shadow from Prime Books. In addition to appearances in several Best of the Year anthologies, he has been a finalist for both the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Mansion of Bones” by Richard Parks
“Throwing Stones” by Mishell Baker

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3 Comments on “Lady of the Ghost Willow”

3 Responses to “Lady of the Ghost Willow”

  1. Ooops says:

    10-11-2010, 05:16 PM
    Ooops

    This story is actually my first contact with Beneath a Ceaseless Sky. Fortunately, that was a very pleasant first encounter. I enjoyed the piece a lot.

    At first sight, this is a japanese ghost story. But in reality, it is at least as much a murder mystery. Complete with the mandatory final exposition, Poirot-style. It also somehow reminded me of a grown-up’s XXXHolic (manga by Clamp)

    Now, I’m not a big specialist of ancient japanese culture, but what part of it that Richaed Parks has chosen to weave in his story, feels totally authentic. His explnations even shed a light on some parts of Miyazaki’s “spirited away” that I had not fully grasped until today.

    It has to be said that, while the story feels genuinely Japanese, the style most definitely is jot. In contrast to Japanese fairy tales (as written by Japanese people), Richard Parks is much more direct. The various concepts are clearly explained instead of being alluded to. To the point that he may begin to sound a little too didactic at times, explaining rather than telling. This, however is a pretty minor quibbles that can only imprint the slightest dent in an otherwise charming and original tale. I hope we get to read another of Lord Yamada’s adventures pretty soon. Recommended.

  2. DFowler says:

    10-12-2010, 08:06 PM
    DFowler

    As usual Richard Parks’s Lord Yamada shines and me begging for more

  3. euphrosyne says:

    10-12-2010, 10:48 PM
    euphrosyne

    I’m not much of a fan of mysteries of any style, but this one kept me reading. The Japanese setting combined with the non-Japanese style was key, I think.

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