“You do realize that she’s a demon, don’t you?”
Kenji, the often inebriated and always disreputable priest, whispered this comment into my ear as we followed behind the attractive young woman who was leading us through the icy mountain pass. At first our meeting with the woman, who claimed to be a wood-cutter’s daughter from Aoi village, seemed an unusual turn of good luck. The mountains this far north were treacherous at best and deadly at worst. A sudden snow squall had caught us all but unprepared, and the promise of warm food and shelter for the night was extremely appealing.
I sighed and tried to shake some feeling back into my fingers. “No. I thought it was mere happenstance that the air turned suddenly colder and the snow fell harder when she appeared. Are you prepared?”
“Yes. Pity, though. She is quite winsome.”
“I’ll thank you to think with your mind and not your loins where our lives are concerned.”
The woman paused and turned back to look at us. Kenji was right—she was a beauty. Her hair was long and seemed even blacker than obsidian against the backdrop of snow. She had a sweet if rather sharp-featured face. Her eyes were the only real clue, if one could interpret them correctly. They were as black and cold as stone.
“Forgive my impertinence, but may I ask what you gentlemen are discussing? We get so few visitors up here that sometimes I feel starved for human company.”
Both the irony and the implication of that statement were not lost on either of us. “We were simply marveling at our good fortune and our rudeness in turn,” I said. “We forgot to ask your name.”
The woman smiled at us, though she demurely concealed her teeth with her open right hand. “Yuki.”
Snow. Of course. More a statement of identity than a name, if a little obvious: yuki-onna. Snow woman. I looked beyond her. The pass was sloping downward, which was a good sign, but daylight was fading quickly.
“It’s a pretty name,” Kenji said.
“Thank you,” she said. She started to turn, then hesitated. “The snow is getting worse. We might not be able to reach the village by nightfall, but there is a hut nearby that my father built for shelter in just these circumstances. We might be better off to stop there. The path is dangerous at night, even for one who knows the way.”
“We will yield to your judgment,” I said. “Lead on.”
My tachi was loose in its scabbard, but I wasn’t inclined to use it on mere suspicion, compelling as that suspicion was. I didn’t have the knack for reattaching a person’s head once I’d cut it off—such actions tended to be irrevocable. Besides, I knew Kenji had a better way.
Yuki turned onto a side path that led up the mountainside. At first I thought she was leading us to some quiet cave to work her will, but we soon approached a very old but solid and serviceable-looking hut. It was partially sheltered by an ancient pine tree. The snow on the path to the dwelling was undisturbed, and there was no light showing from within. There was a low moan of the wind through the branches of the pine as the snow continued to fall heavily.
“If you gentlemen will make yourselves as comfortable as possible, I will fetch some wood.”
“Very kind of you.”
I pushed the door open and peered cautiously into the gloom, but there was no place for anyone to be hiding. I went inside and Kenji followed, but before he closed the door behind him, I saw him take a small slip of paper tied in a lover’s knot out of his robe and wedge it firmly into the crevice between two planks in the door.
Inside the hut it was not any warmer, but at least the freezing wind was somewhat dampened. There were no furnishings to speak of, but there was a sand firepit with a small cast-iron kettle suspended above it that could be used for cooking. I took my flint and steel and used the edge of my dagger to take some shavings from a scrap of wood that appeared to have been left there for the purpose. In a short time I had a very small fire going with what scraps I could find, but it would not last long without more wood.
We heard the sound of approaching footsteps, and then the rattle of the door.
“Gentlemen,” Yuki said, “why have you barred the door?”
“We have not done so,” Kenji called out as he held his hands over the flickering little fire. “There is nothing here to bar the door with. Perhaps it is stuck. Let me try pushing it.” Kenji yawned and then called out again. “No, it seems to be stuck. Try pulling harder.”
“I see that the door is barred, priest,” Yuki said. At least, it sounded a little like Yuki. It sounded more like the howl of the wind. Again the door rattled, but that could have been the wind as well.
“Please, sirs,” Yuki said, and it sounded like her familiar voice again. “I am cold.”
“You are,” Kenji agreed. “You are the cold of the mountain itself given a pleasing but misleading form. Go away, demon.”
“Not until I have fed, priest. Open the door,” and now the voice was the moan of the freezing wind.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think we will.”
Now the wind did truly howl, and we heard the lashing of tree limbs as the wind pushed them together, heard the fall of snow as it crashed down on the hut’s roof. Yet whoever—at this point I was certain it was not Yuki’s father—had built the hut had known what he was about, and the roof held even though the fire sputtered out for lack of fuel.
“I don’t suppose she actually brought any wood with her,” Kenji said.
The door continued to rattle. “Is that ward secure?” I asked.
“I blessed it as I set it in place. Let her bluster. Nothing that she can do will remove it.”
“Even so, she’s going to make things very uncomfortable for us.”
Kenji and I pulled out our blankets and all the spare clothing we had and wrapped ourselves as best we could. I trusted that the protective ward that Kenji had placed in the door would hold the creature at bay, but her power was going to be felt despite that.
Kenji shivered. “Lord Yamada, please tell me why we’re in this hellish place. If I’m going to freeze to death tonight, I have a right to know why.”
“I’m here at Prince Kanemore’s urgent request. You’re here because Prince Kanemore ordered you to accompany me. For some reason he thinks you have utility of some sort.”
The priest grinned. “Ask the demon outside if I have utility, Lord Yamada. Even so, I have been excluded from any other information which, I trust, you have.”
I’d been sworn to secrecy while we were in the Capital, but there seemed little point in keeping silent now. “The head of the Tsugaru Clan, Lord Yoshi, is trying to negotiate a treaty with the Emishi.”
Kenji frowned. “The northern barbarians? Is this possible?”
“That is uncertain, but since peace will reduce the strain on the Imperial revenues, Prince Kanemore wants these talks to succeed. Though how the barbarians have the energy to wage war in this place when they should be huddled by their fires at home is beyond me.”
“You’re an investigator, ghost hunter, and demon queller. Not a diplomat,” Kenji said, then added, “Especially not a diplomat.”
“I know that, and Prince Kanemore knows that. Apparently, negotiations have been complicated because someone kidnapped the Emishi chief’s daughter-in-law.”
“And they want you to find her?”
“Just so. Prince Kanemore hinted that there was more to the matter but that Lord Yoshi would have to supply the details. Now you know as much as I do. We’ll find out the rest if that charming monster outside lets us live through the night.”
The demon’s power would diminish in the light of day. All we had to do was survive the night, but as the cold settled in and the last embers of our fire turned to cold ash, I began to wonder if it might not be better to take my sword and my chances with the creature outside. If we weren’t killed immediately, at least then maybe we could find some firewood.
Kenji was apparently doing his own musing. “Isn’t this always the way?” he said after we’d shivered in silence for a while. “We come across a lovely young woman alone in some remote place, and she always turns out to be an angry ghost or a fox or some sort of demon in disguise.”
“Perhaps, as a priest, you should take a lesson from this,” I said.
Kenji looked thoughtful. “Yes, and the lesson is that I should be more careful in the company I choose. Lord Yamada, I’m beginning to think that you attract monsters.”
I should have been insulted, but for all I knew Kenji was right. Yet as he was a priest who specialized in exorcism and wards of protection and thus profited by such encounters, I didn’t think it fair of Kenji to complain.
“Try to get some sleep,” I said. “I’ll keep watch for now.”
Neither of us got much sleep with the wind howling and the hut rattling as if it would collapse on us at any moment. Even so, while the cold remained brutal, it got no worse and the howling finally subsided. When dawn came at last we opened the door cautiously to find deep scratches in the wood as if an animal had clawed at it and Kenji’s ward still in place. The snow had stopped, the sky was clear, and there was no sign of the creature that had called herself Yuki.
“Clear daylight will hinder a snow demon but only just. Best to be away from here quickly,” I said.
We rearranged our travel bundles and retraced our steps down the slope until we found the main path again and followed it down and to the east as it wrapped itself around the mountainside. We had gone barely the length of three bowshots when we reached the valley at the base of the mountains and Aoi village came into view.
“Yuki lied,” Kenji said. “Fancy that. If the settlement hadn’t been around a bend of the mountain, we’d have seen the fires last night.”
Lord Yoshi’s winter encampment was on the outskirts of the village, though he himself was a guest of the mountain temple nearby. I showed Prince Kanemore’s letter of introduction to the Tsugaru retainer stationed at the base of the pass, and he immediately turned his watch over to another man and escorted us to the temple personally. Our guide was a handsome young man who, at least at first appearance, seemed close to exhaustion. He studied us with some curiosity even as he did his best to hide the fact.
“I am Lord Yamada, and this is the priest Kenji,” I said finally. “What’s your name?”
“Tsugaru no Michi, My Lords.”
“Do you know how the negotiations stand at present?”
He bowed slightly. “Such matters are above one such as myself,” he said, “though I do not think there has been any negotiation for the past several days. No fighting, either. Yet.”
“You say that as one expecting trouble,” Kenji said.
Michi grunted. “One always expects trouble at the borders.”
I frowned. “Has this village ever been attacked?”
“Fortunately, no, though we would defend it vigorously. Its position as the gateway to the mountain pass makes it too important to do otherwise.”
As we walked through the village on our way to the temple, I noticed what I thought might, perhaps, be another reason the settlement had not been attacked: I saw at least three villagers with red hair and more than one man with a thick, bushy beard. “There is trade with the Emishi, I take it?”
Michi smiled slightly. “More than trade, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Which may be part of the reason the barbarians attack other border outposts but not here. Even so, a full-out conflict would spare no one.”
“Which I’m sure both Lord Yoshi and Prince Kanemore wish to avoid.”
“If you’ll pardon my saying so, my Lords, they are not the ones who need to be convinced. Lord Yoshi knows more of this matter than I do, so please forgive my rambling.”
“No, you’ve been very helpful. I will say as much to Lord Yoshi,” I said.
Michi looked unhappy. “Thank you, but I am not in Lord Yoshi’s good graces at the moment, and hearing my name might not put him in the best of moods for your councils.”
“As you wish.”
The temple at Aoi was like most of the smaller mountain temples: it was unwalled and consisted mainly of a central hall with an open garden to the south of the building and outbuildings added at various times at need over the years. Lord Yoshi was quartered in a spare room of the main hall, and Michi gave us over to a young priest at the doorway who led us through the main hall. The main room was the image hall where a large wooden statue of Kannon the Merciful dominated, but the room had been partially partitioned off to the left to create a separate large space, and in that space, displayed on various altar-like tiers, were dolls.
I glanced at Kenji, but if he had noticed the odd sight, he showed no sign. Lord Yoshi was expecting us, and an acolyte had saké already warming on a brazier. We made our introductions and I gave over Prince Kanemore’s letter. Kenji and I both gratefully accepted small bowls of the warm saké while he read it; the chill from the previous night had not entirely left my bones, but the drink went a long way toward restoring the balance.
Lord Yoshi was a vigorous, blunt-featured man just a little older than myself, perhaps forty or so. He studied Prince Kanemore’s letter intently. He finally grunted. “The Prince’s instructions are clear enough.”
“Would it be polite to ask what they are? I’m afraid he was rather evasive as to why he felt I could be of service to you.”
“He said only that I should trust you, as he does. I’m afraid I have little choice. Have you spoken to any of my retinue before now?”
Kenji and I glanced at each other, but I wasn’t going to start off my service to Lord Yoshi with a lie. “Yes. A young bushi named Michi. Though there was little he could tell me of the situation.”
Lord Yoshi nodded. “Ah. That one.”
“While I understand that this is none of my concern, he did seem to feel that he was not in favor.”
“He’s one of my best soldiers, for one so young,” Lord Yoshi said. “But he’s allowed his heart to interfere with his duties. He’s not the first and won’t be the last. No matter. The reason I asked is because rumors have been flying thick as last night’s snowstorm. I wanted to know what you’ve heard.”
“Only that the barbarian chief... Akitomo?” Lord Yoshi indicated that I was correct, and I went on. “His son’s wife has been kidnapped. I learned that from Prince Kanemore. All Michi said was that the situation was tense.”
Lord Yoshi smiled. “And so it is. But at once simpler and far more complicated than Prince Kanemore indicated. Please come with me.” He rose, and after we put our bowls aside for the acolyte to collect, we followed his example. Lord Yoshi led us out into the main hall of the temple toward the alcove of dolls that I had noticed earlier. Upon closer inspection, it was easy to see that the dolls varied greatly in age, skill of construction, and condition. Some were practically crumbling where they stood; others could have been made within the month. All wore some variation of a common wedding kimono.
“Chief Akitomo’s daughter-in-law was stolen from this very place,” said Lord Yoshi.
I frowned. “She came here to pray?”
“She resided here,” Lord Yoshi said. “In this spot.” He pointed to a dusty gap on the third tier of dolls.
I must have looked as baffled as I felt, but Kenji suddenly gasped. “Bride dolls!”
I just stared at him, but Lord Yoshi smiled. “That is correct, Master Kenji.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, stating the obvious.
“Lord Yamada, it’s a local custom in some northern provinces,” Kenji said. “When a boy dies before the age of maturity, his family will create a special doll in wedding attire and dedicate it to the local temple. The idea is that the doll, through the prayers of the family and blessings of the priests, will be infused with a benevolent spirit and essentially become the bride the boy never had in life, to provide companionship and comfort to his ghost.” Kenji turned to Lord Yoshi. “But... this means Akitomo’s son is dead.”
“Yes. The boy was killed in a hunting accident this spring. A tragedy; he was only seven. Yet I think it was Akitomo’s grief over the loss of his son that led him to consider a more formal peace in the first place.”
Kenji frowned. “May I ask why an Emishi like Akitomo would follow the custom of the bride doll? While I am no expert on their customs, I did not think this was in their tradition.”
“Strictly speaking, it isn’t. Akitomo’s wife is the daughter of the headman of this very village,” Lord Yoshi said. “And under her influence Akitomo has adopted some of the local customs. Which is another point in favor of more understanding between us. Yet with his wife ‘kidnapped,’ I’m afraid that the dead boy’s spirit has become restless and angry and is often seen in the village, either crying or screaming without sound. Since the theft was from this very temple, Akitomo holds us responsible for this, and if we don’t return the doll to its rightful place soon, all Prince Kanemore’s and my own hard work may come to nothing.”
“Forgive me, but do you have any reason to suspect that the culprit may be among your own people?” I asked.
He sighed. “Lord Yamada, unfortunately I have every reason to think so. While you well know there are factions on both sides who do not see peace as being in their best interests, no one from outside other than yourselves has made the trip through that pass in months. And all contact with Akitomo’s people has been very formal and very limited. If anyone else had been within the village, I would know. Yet a thorough search of both my camp and the village has revealed nothing.”
“Who watches the approach through the pass, other than Michi?”
“Hikaru and Jun share the duty with him. Please understand this, Lord Yamada: while I have reason to be critical of Michi’s priorities just now, I do not question his loyalty.”
I was finally beginning to understand why I had been sent all this way for what should have been a simple search. Apparently, not simple at all. “I was not suggesting anything. I merely wanted to be clear on the point. I promise we will do our best to find the young man’s bride.”
Or at least as well as one could do, when that one had absolutely no idea of where to begin.
After we took our leave of Lord Yoshi, Kenji and I were shown to our lodgings within the village, a roomy hut in the headman’s own compound. We were brought food and water, and the man’s own wife saw to the fire. After our hosts left us alone, I took advantage of our relative isolation to speak to Kenji privately. “Doesn’t any of this strike you as a little strange?”
Kenji laughed. “Which part? Snow demons? Bride Dolls? Ghosts? In our professions, Lord Yamada, ‘strange’ is like rice and fish. Part of a normal day.”
“I mean the circumstances, Kenji-san. Lord Yoshi is convinced that the doll was stolen to interfere with the peace treaty.”
“A completely reasonable assumption, in my opinion,” Kenji said dryly.
“I agree, but when a man carries only a mallet, everything starts to look like a peg. Lord Yoshi’s main concern is the negotiation, but stealing the doll was a rather chancy way to go about interfering, don’t you think? If preventing peace was my goal, I could think of more certain ways to do it.”
“How about dressing in Tsugaru livery and making a clumsy attempt on the Emishi chief’s life? Or stealing one of those poison arrows the barbarians use and wounding Lord Yoshi with it? Either would be a far more direct and obvious show of bad faith.”
Kenji frowned. “Go on.”
“Stealing the bride doll has apparently been very effective at raising tensions between the two parties, I admit. And I also admit I’m not familiar with the custom, but it does seem to me that the effect of the theft on the spirit of Akitomo’s son simply could not be anticipated.”
Kenji sighed. “What you’re saying only makes sense if the reason that the doll was stolen has nothing to do with the negotiations. How likely is that?”
The same thought had been troubling me. “Not very.”
“Honestly, Lord Yamada. Stop being so twisty in your reasoning. Sometimes things really are as they appear.”
“Sometimes,” I said. “But not very often.”
Kenji and I were simply too weary to begin anything meaningful that day. After a quick look around Aoi village, we went to bed early, but dawn had yet to arrive before I found myself wide awake again. Kenji was still snoring, so I dressed as quietly as I could, took my sword, and slipped out of the hut.
The sky was still clear; there was no moon visible, but the stars were clear and bright in the cold air. All I had to do was walk up the near slope, and soon the entire village and the approach to the pass were both clearly visible. I could see the fires of the watch station just north of the village where Kenji and I had found Michi the previous morning. The more I saw of the area the more I was convinced that Lord Yoshi was correct—whoever had taken the doll had to be in either the village or the encampment.
The problem with this conclusion was if this was so, then the doll still had to be there as well, and Lord Yoshi’s search had not revealed it. I tried to ignore the possibility that the doll had been destroyed; otherwise there truly was nothing I could do. My best guess was that the doll was in the encampment; it just made sense that concealing the doll would be far simpler if you were one of those charged with searching for it.
While I was puzzling over this, I saw what at first looked like a blue lantern coming down one of the narrow lanes of the village from the direction of the temple. After a moment I realized it was not a lantern but a bluish flame.
I moved down the slope to intercept, but I already had a pretty good idea of what I was looking at. Sure enough, once I got closer, the blue flame resolved into the glowing outline of a young boy. His expression seemed by turns angry and despairing. He opened his mouth as if to wail, but no sound came out. I spoke to him, but it was as if he didn’t even hear me. I followed the pitiful specter for a little while in the hope that it might provide a clue as to where the doll had been hidden, but the ghost did not seem to have any more idea than I did. It simply wandered here and there, searching, calling out in silence for his bride. After a while the light faded and winked out.
I resolved to ask Lord Yoshi for permission to conduct my own search later in the day. I yawned. By my reckoning it was still a while before dawn. I considered returning to my bed for another hour or two of rest when something moving to the north caught my attention.
Someone was going up the mountain path, and it was not a ghost. There was no lantern, but I could see well enough by starlight to make out the figure of a man bundled against the cold, moving purposefully toward the higher mountain pass.
I pulled my overjacket closer around me and slipped through the still-sleeping village. There was no sound except the crunch of snow under my feet and the lonely bark of a dog. I made my way to the sentry station on the outskirts of the village. There was a lone bushi on duty warming his hands over a charcoal brazier.
“You’re...Jun-san, yes? I’m Lord Yamada. Who passed your station a short time ago?” The man hesitated and I pressed on. “If you doubt my right to ask this, we can awaken Lord Yoshi and verify my position.”
The man bowed. “It’s not that, My Lord, I just...”
“Are you saying you didn’t see anyone?”
For a moment I thought he meant to do just that, but he finally sighed. “I don’t want to get him in any more trouble. He’s had more than his share.”
I understood then. “Ah. It was Michi-san, yes?”
The man indicated assent, though he didn’t appear too happy about it. “His watch was just completed. He should be getting some rest now, but he won’t give up.”
“Give up what?”
“My Lord, I’ve already said more than I should. Michi-san’s private grief is not mine to share. I can assure you that his loyalty to Lord Yoshi is beyond question.”
“No one is questioning his loyalty. You want to protect your friend. I understand this. I am not asking because I suspect Michi-san of any wrongdoing. Yet you must admit he is acting strangely, and under the circumstances I would be shirking my duty if I did not ascertain why. Would you prefer I hear the situation from you or from some perhaps less sympathetic person? I know how stories travel, in armies and villages alike.”
Jun let out a gusting sigh that immediately turned to mist in the cold air. “Michi-san married a woman from another village about two years ago and had a daughter by her. One day both his wife and daughter disappeared. The rumor was that she had argued with her husband and taken herself and her daughter back to her home village and her own family, but Michi-san does not speak of it. Every chance he gets, he goes to search for her.”
“How long ago did this happen?”
“Nearly a month.”
“You do realize that there are no villages for several days travel from here? How could he be searching for her?”
“Of course I know this,” he said. “Michi-san cannot go very far. He always returns after several hours, so I can only assume that he’s looking for some sign of her. Perhaps to reassure himself that she and her daughter did not become lost in the snow or come to some grief.”
“Such as being attacked by a snow-demon?”
Jun’s face was unreadable. “Or wolves. Or bandits. The pass is dangerous for many reasons, My Lord.”
“Thank you, Jun-san. You’ve been very helpful. I will be sure not to mention this conversation to Michi-san.”
He bowed and I returned the courtesy, though we both knew there were no bandits on that road. Not enough travelers to justify the effort, and those who did move on the road were more than likely armed men traveling here and there on Lord Yoshi’s orders. Wolves? Possibly, though Kenji and I had neither seen nor heard any.
Snow-demons, on the other hand, were another matter entirely. Was Michi actively courting death, or did he simply disregard the danger? And was it coincidence that Michi’s wife and daughter disappeared around the same time that Akitomo’s son’s “bride” went missing as well? For a while I considered following him up the mountain but saw the first glow of dawn and thought better of it. I returned to our quarters, where Kenji was still peacefully asleep. I corrected this with a handful of snow brought in just for the purpose.
Kenji woke up sputtering and cursing. “Baka...!” His eyes finally focused on something beyond his dreams, and he recognized me as he brushed the snow off his face. “Lord Yamada, what do you think you’re doing?”
“Waking you. We have work to do.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the work I had planned. Somehow in my nocturnal excursion, it had come to Lord Yoshi’s attention that I had seen the ghost of Akitomo’s son’s ghost myself. After questioning me thoroughly, Lord Yoshi insisted we spend a good bit of the morning seeking out villagers who had witnessed the event. We heard many interesting stories. Some about the ghost. Others about the snow-demon that haunted the pass above the village. By the time we returned to our quarters for the noon-day meal, I was in a less than cheerful mood. I managed to be civil to the headman’s wife until she had withdrawn, but only just.
Kenji frowned. “Why are you so irritable? We’ve learned quite a bit this morning.”
“Well, that the ghost tends to appear just before dawn. That he follows a meandering path, silently crying and wailing, through the village. If I can rise early enough tomorrow, I can witness this for myself.”
“Why should you wish to do this? Unless you plan to exorcise the boy’s spirit, that is.”
Kenji put his hands on his hips. “Perhaps you missed something, Lord Yamada. Though while we’re on the subject, if the boy had been a villager, I’d suggest that course exactly. Yet he isn’t, and I can’t imagine the Emishi chief would take a favorable view of such an act.”
“Favorable? He’d have your worthless hide for an umbrella just to start!”
“Then, pray, why the bad humor? Other than the fact that probably neither one of us will ever feel warm again, that is?”
I sighed. “We’ve wasted most of the morning, in my opinion. The fact that the boy’s spirit cannot rest is the entire problem, but unfortunately there’s nothing connected to his ghost as such that forms any part of the solution, in my opinion. For that we must look elsewhere.”
“My guess yesterday was the encampment itself. Now I think this unlikely, but despite this the encampment must be searched again. And there’s our afternoon.”
Kenji grunted. “A true waste of time in my opinion. I already said that I think the doll’s been destroyed. That’s what I would do.”
“So would I. It only makes sense.”
“Then why look for it? Lord Yoshi needs to be told, and then we need to go home and tell Prince Kanemore to send gifts to mollify the Emishi. Lots of gifts.”
“Even Prince Kanemore doesn’t have that kind of discretion. There are already influential voices within the Imperial Court arguing that the war should be pursued to completion. If we fail now, chances are that those are the voices that will be heard.”
“But if the doll’s been destroyed, what can we do?” Kenji asked.
“I don’t believe the doll has been destroyed.”
“That I would have destroyed the doll, true, but I’m not the one who took it. At this point I think the question of ‘why’ the doll was taken is every bit as important as ‘who.’ Perhaps some of those stories we heard in the village are not quite as pointless as I first believed.”
“Are you telling me that you know who the thief is?”
“No. I’m telling you that I think we’re looking in the wrong place. That doesn’t change the fact that the wrong place must be thoroughly searched.”
We came into the encampment without warning and merely invoked Lord Yoshi’s name whenever someone questioned us. Yet for the most part we met no more resistance than simple reluctance. Even so, there were a lot of tents to search, and of necessity the ones searching were only Kenji and myself. I forced myself to be as complete and systematic as I knew how, but by late afternoon I was of the firm opinion that no one in either the camp or village had possession of the missing doll.
Apparently Lord Yoshi had formed some firm opinions of his own, for we were summoned back to Aoi Temple as soon as we returned. Lord Yoshi was considerably less warm and welcoming this time.
“I see that you’ve repeated the searches I’ve already conducted,” he said dryly.
I bowed. “Some mountains are best viewed at a distance.”
He grunted. “Which is why I gave you permission to do the search, Lord Yamada, but you must admit that, so far, you have achieved nothing.”
“It would be foolish to dispute the obvious, My Lord. Then again, if the problem had been a simple or obvious one, Prince Kanemore would not have insisted that we come.”
“That may be so, but Akitomo is not the only one who knows how to plant spies,” Lord Yoshi said. “And I’ve received some very disturbing news today. Akitomo is gathering his people. I think he means to come to this village and find his son’s missing bride himself. Or burn the place to the ground looking. I cannot allow either.”
“No, I would think not. How long do we have?”
“Probably no more than two days. I’m pleased that you brought your sword, Lord Yamada. We may have need of it very soon.”
I bowed. “I am at My Lord’s service in that event. But until then, I do intend to pursue my original mission.”
Lord Yoshi did not look very optimistic. “Then let us hope tomorrow is better than today.”
“What now?” Kenji asked as we left the temple.
“Time to grasp at straws,” I said. “Get your snowshoes.”
The sentry at the watch station summoned a messenger when we were barely a bowshot up the mountain path. I waited long enough to see this happen, then continued up the mountain. The snow was deep, but only a little new snow had fallen. There were tracks ahead of us, but they appeared to date from the day before.
Kenji noted the messenger. “What do you think that was about? Is he apprising Lord Yoshi of our actions?”
“Could be,” I said and kept walking.
“I know that tone, Lord Yamada. You use it when you’re just making conversation. Where do you think he’s gone?”
“If I’m right, we’ll know soon enough.”
Kenji peered up the path. “I still think this is a bad idea. There’s not much daylight left, and you know what lurks up here.”
“We’re not going very far. As for knowing what lurks, it’s not just us. Everyone in the village knows, from the stories we’ve been hearing. I imagine Lord Yoshi finds it quite vexing to have a snow-demon on his rear with a mortal enemy in front. Even the most untried of commanders knows that securing one’s flanks is a wise precaution, and Lord Yoshi is anything but untried.”
“So why hasn’t he dealt with the creature before now? Snowdemons may be powerful, but they can be killed, and he has the men to do it.”
“Yes, but Lord Yoshi had sent men into the pass on several occasions, according to the villagers. They always return empty-handed.”
Kenji paused to pull himself out of a hole. He waved off my assistance. “Are you just making conversation again?”
“No. I asked a question of the sentry while you were adjusting the ties on your snowshoes. It seems that Michi-san always volunteers to lead these particular hunting parties.”
“Perhaps,” I said. “I don’t believe so. Any more than I believe that the messenger we just saw was being sent to Lord Yoshi.”
We had just passed the first few trees as the path crested into what would become the mountain pass. Up ahead, the woods showed dark and gloomy; it was only the snow on the ground reflecting the fading sunset that kept the area from going completely dark. Below us, Aoi village winked out of sight around the mountain as we climbed to the highest point in the pass.
Kenji’s eyes opened wide. “Michi-san took the doll! He’s hiding it up here, and his friends are helping him conceal the fact! When we tell Lord Yoshi—”
I sighed. “Michi-san did not take the doll. He comes to this place nearly every day. Every spare minute he can find, he’s up here. If he were hiding the doll near the pass, it would be stupid in the extreme to call attention to this area. The man is not stupid.”
“I don’t know. I suggest we ask him when he gets here.”
“Gentlemen. We meet again.”
It was Yuki. Standing no more than ten yards away. Smiling. I cursed myself for a careless fool and drew my sword while Kenji quickly pulled a ward from his robe. Her smile grew wider. She reached into the front of her robe and pulled out the necklace she wore so that we could see—it was a string of prayer beads.
“That won’t work this time, sir priest,” she said. “If I’d realized what you had done that first night, I’d have realized the remedy was in my hands. Silly me.”
“How do you wear that...?” Kenji started to ask, but she cut him off.
“I’m hungry. My little one must be fed. I do not think I will answer your questions.” I heard footsteps behind us but didn’t dare turn and look. Yuki started forward and I readied myself. I knew that when the cold struck fully, it would be very hard to move. If I missed the first blow...
Kenji had already drawn his own prayer beads and was in the first phrase of a chant when suddenly Michi was between us and Yuki.
Kenji looked frantic. “Michi-san, look out! She’s a demon!”
I grunted. “Save your warning, Kenji. He knows what she is.”
Yuki stopped, and her anger and frustration were obvious. “Anata, move aside.”
I’d had my suspicions, but now everything was that much clearer.
Michi held out his arms as if to shield us. “You must not harm these men!”
“Why not?” she asked. “I am hungry.”
I spoke up quickly. “Shall I tell her, Michi-san? It’s because, if you kill us, this time Lord Yoshi will send everyone he can spare, far more than you can kill or elude, and your husband will not be able to protect you,” I said. “Or do you want to risk the little one’s life as well?”
That got her attention. Michi’s, too.
“Yuki is the ‘woman from another village’ you were married to. When she left you, she took up residence in her old haunts. Am I right?”
“She did not leave me,” Michi said. “She left the village. She tried—”
“—to live as a human, for your sake,” I said. “Yes, Michi-san, I have seen that before. It never seems to work. Not for foxes and not for snow-demons.”
Kenji scowled. “Michi-san and this... creature?”
Yuki looked faintly amused at Kenji’s outburst, but Michi cut in. “I crossed the pass alone the first day I came here,” Michi said softly. “She could have killed me when we met. Perhaps it would have been better for us both if she had.”
Yuki wasn’t amused now. There were tears in her eyes. They turned to ice crystals and fell softly, just two more flakes of snow. “I cannot help it. I am hungry,” she said. “Soon your daughter will be hungry.”
“Come home,” Michi said.
She looked away. “I cannot. You know I cannot.”
“That is a problem, since she cannot stay here, either,” I said. “My guess is that, unless she’s living as a human, human food cannot sustain her. She can suckle the child for now, wherever she keeps it hidden, but she can’t feed herself without taking life. That’s why you’ve been coming up here, isn’t it? She’s taking life from you because there’s no one else, but since she doesn’t wish to slay you, it’s never enough, never all of your life. That’s why she’s still hungry while you can barely stand.”
Michi didn’t say anything, but I knew it was true. If anything, the exhaustion I had seen in the young man when we first met was worse. He was functioning on will alone.
“Sooner or later she’s going to kill you. Then what do you think will happen to her and the child?”
“There’s another way. I’ll find it,” Michi said.
“Believe what you will. For now, if she gives up the doll, perhaps we can at least buy you both and the village some time.”
Michi frowned. “Doll?”
I turned to Yuki. “When you left the village, you took a doll from Aoi Temple, didn’t you?”
Michi scowled. “Why do you accuse her?”
“Because, as far as I can determine, the doll disappeared at the same time she did,” I said, “and while I recognize that this is not proof and that coincidences exist, true coincidences are very rare. Or did it never occur to you to ask her?”
Michi looked as if he’d been struck between the eyes with a mallet. He finally looked at the snow-demon. “Yuki?”
She sighed. “Human children need such things, so I brought one for our child. It was the newest one, perhaps, but I don’t understand all the fuss; the temple had plenty of others.”
Michi smiled a weak smile. “I will bring you food when I am stronger,” he said. “Please be patient. I will bring another doll for our child. A better doll. But I think we had best return that one to the temple.”
She scowled. “Very well, and for your sake I will wait a little longer. But do not break faith with me or I will do what I must. I have your word?”
“You have everything that I am,” Michi said.
The snow-demon apparently considered this oath enough and turned and floated back into the forest like a swirl of snowflakes and disappeared. We rushed forward to support Michi, who was in imminent danger of falling face-first into the snow.
“You never saw where she keeps the child hidden, did you? Otherwise I assume you would have known she had the doll,” I said.
Michi admitted that this was so. “She’s afraid I’ll try to take our daughter back to the village if I know where she is. I mentioned the doll was missing and that it was a problem, but Yuki never said anything. I shouldn’t be surprised; she doesn’t always think the way you or I do. I’ve learned that.”
“No doubt. I gather those prayer beads were a gift from you?” Kenji asked.
“They help remind her... of her human side. Yuki does have one, you know. I’ve seen it.”
“That may be so, but sooner or later you’re going to have to bring your daughter back among true human beings. Or see her turn into her mother,” Kenji said. “You know this to be true.”
Michi didn’t even blink. “I also know that, without the child, Yuki may forget everything of what being human meant, prayer beads or no. One day I will bring them both home.”
“One day she’s going to kill you,” I said.
“No,” he said serenely. “She won’t. I will not lose them. Either of them.”
“You’re a fool,” Kenji said. “but sometimes fortune favors the fool. I will pray for you.”
Michi sighed. “I’m not such a fool that I won’t take whatever help I can get.”
We told Lord Yoshi that a trickster badger-dog had taken the doll and hidden it in the mountains, but with Michi’s help, we had managed to find it. I’m not sure he believed us, but the doll was back in its rightful place, and that was all he cared about. Lord Yoshi informed the headman of the village, who through his daughter sent word to Akitomo.
While we waited to hear the outcome, Kenji and I made a doll. Naturally, it was the first doll I’d ever attempted, though I’d done a little carving from time to time. Kenji, with help and scraps of cloth from the headman’s wife, made the clothes. I wouldn’t call either of our contributions a work of art, but together they made a very passable doll.
For his service Michi was granted a temporary absence from his duties, which, while we worked on the doll, he spent mostly eating and sleeping. He said he could wait two days but no longer before he had to return to the mountain.
Just enough time to be certain we would be able to leave. If there had been any way back except through the pass, I’d have taken it, but having Michi escort us through was the next best thing.
Word came. Akitomo and the boy’s mother were together praying for their son, and that was all. The Emishi were dispersing back to their farms and villages. The new doll was completed and we presented it to Michi, who, if not fully recovered, was at least rested.
The time came to go. We took our leave of Lord Yoshi and the headman and his family. Michi went with us up to the pass. We saw Yuki among the trees, but she kept her distance until Michi left us on the far side of the pass. As we made our way down the mountain, the snow crunching under our feet, we saw them meet again under the trees.
I turned back to the path ahead. “Idiot.”
Kenji grinned. “Funny thing, Lord Yamada. The way you said that, it almost sounded like a compliment. So. I assume you learned that the snow-demon was Michi’s lover the same way I did?”
“I already suspected, but yes. When she used the familiar form of ‘you’ to address him. Anata. Only someone on intimate terms with a man would do that.”
“That’s the common usage, but don’t you think we were making a great deal out of a simple pronoun? I might do the same referring to you.”
I smiled a grim smile. “Not the way she said it. She may as well have called him ‘beloved.’ Unless there’s something you’re not telling me?”
Kenji ignored that. He looked thoughtful. “Do you really think she’ll kill him?”
I thought about it, but not for long. “Yes. I really do. I’ll go so far as to say she might not mean to do so, but she will.”
“Then don’t we have a duty to stay and try to reason with him?”
“No,” I said.
“Because I might be wrong.”
I cut Kenji off. “Michi is a grown man. He’s made his choice and understands the consequences. He’s going to try and be happy. Just because I failed doesn’t mean he will.”
Kenji just sighed. “You’re a romantic, Lord Yamada.”
I saved my breath for walking rather than argue the point. I had already resolved to stop and make offerings at the first temple or shrine that we passed, and to offer prayers on Michi’s behalf that he might succeed. That I might actually be wrong. It wouldn’t be much more trouble to add a prayer that, for my own sake, Kenji might be wrong, too.
© Copyright 2013 by Richard Parks. Originally published in Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter. Reprinted by permission of the author.