I didn’t know how Kenji found me. I didn’t know what possessed him to look. Yet there he was, coming up the mountain trail to what was left of Enfusa Temple. I was sitting on the broad stone steps that now led to nothing, looking out over the valley below and admiring the view, when I heard his approach.
“What are you doing here, Kenji-san?” I asked.
“That would be my question to you as well, Lord Yamada. Or does it simply stand to reason that the only temple you feel any attraction to is a failed one?” Kenji the reprobate priest leaned his mendicant’s staff against a pine tree and sat down beside me on the steps. “Charming view,” he said, looking down the mountain.
After a moment of more or less comfortable silence, he frowned and looked behind him. There wasn’t much to see. The temple building had burned down years ago; there wasn’t much left save the stone steps, blackened, shattered roof tiles, and a couple of moldering guardian statues, their features almost weathered away.
“There are ghosts here,” he said. “I can sense them.”
“Most likely. There’s something about thwarted plans and lost opportunities that tends to attract them.”
Kenji sighed. “I know you’re under no obligation to tell me, but I have to ask again: What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know.”
Kenji frowned. “Lord Yamada, you’re frightening me.”
“I haven’t touched saké in three weeks.”
“Oh. In that case, I brought some with me...strictly for charitable reasons, you understand.”
I sighed. “It’s not that I can’t afford saké, Kenji-san. I haven’t wanted it.”
Kenji stared for a moment. “I was wrong. Now you’re frightening me.”
I looked out at the view from the mountain. “The ancient Chinese poet Li Po once said that when he drank, he forgot Heaven and Hell. And when he really drank, he also forgot himself and thus found his greatest joy. I’ve been ‘really’ drinking for a long time now, Kenji-san. Would you concur?”
“If there were such a thing as drinking at heroic levels, you would be an immortal,” Kenji said cheerfully.
“And in all that time I never, not once, forgot myself or found any joy.”
Kenji frowned. “So the lesson is ‘Never trust a drunken Chinese poet’?”
I almost laughed. “That’s one. There may be another lesson, and perhaps that’s why I’m at Enfusa, but I have no idea what it may be.”
“It simply could be that you never drink while you’re on a mission.”
“I’m not on a mission.”
“Yes, you are, though you don’t know it yet. Lord Yamada, I came to tell you that Princess Teiko’s ghost has been seen in Shinoda Forest.”
Whether I was drunk or sober, Teiko haunted my dreams. I had always assumed, if I drank enough that one day this would no longer be true, but there had been fifteen years of drinking after we parted, plus two more after her death, and now my optimism was quite exhausted. As this foolish hope had been all that I had to fight her with, there was nothing left for me to do tonight except the only sensible thing—I surrendered.
In this new dream I was back at Lake Biwa, two years ago. I knew it was two years ago because I was searching desperately along the shore of the lake. Teiko had eluded her guards, and her brother Prince Kanemore and I were searching, though now I knew where she was. I emerged into an open area near the cliffs, Kanemore at my side. I tried to look at him but he had no face. The only face I could see was Teiko’s, almost lost in the distance as she stood on the edge of a precipice, too far away to reach in time.
I’ve heard that a dreamer can wake himself once he knows he is dreaming, but I always knew, and I never awoke. Maybe I didn’t want to; at least this way I could see Teiko again. Even if it was only to watch her die.
She stepped off the edge, as I remembered. But this time, unlike all the times before, she did not strike the water. Her fall slowed from a hard plummet to a gentle drift, as if she were no heavier than a snowflake or the ash of a funeral pyre. She stood on the surface of the lake for a moment, and then she began to walk towards shore.
Kanemore, silent, bowed down. I merely waited, though I wanted to run. She moved across the surface of the water with barely a ripple. I finally sank to my knees and bowed, because I could not think what else to do. “Teiko-hime.”
“It had to be,” she said. “You know this. There was no other way.”
I knew. Teiko took her own life on her way to exile, convicted under a false accusation of treason, the accusation then disproven with my help. With her death laid squarely at the feet of the Fujiwara minister of justice, no one could openly oppose her son’s claim to the throne. All had gone according to her own plan. I, all unknowing, had merely played my part.
“My son,” she said.
“He is safe,” I said.
“No,” she said. She sounded sad. “He is not safe. Neither are you.”
“What must I do?” I asked.
“Forgive me,” she said.
I had tried. I was still trying.
The words stuck in my throat, and when I looked up, she was gone.
Morning, as it usually does, came too early, and after a night sleeping on hard ground I was not in the best of moods to greet it. Besides, if there was a more foolish act for a human male than seeking out a fox spirit deliberately, I couldn’t think what it might be.
Yet this was the second time in my life I’d found myself doing exactly that. It occurred to me that I wasn’t always my own best friend, and I said as much to Kenji . He paused on the road long enough to wipe the sweat from his bald head.
“Lord Yamada, this is perhaps a revelation to you, but I can assure you that it’s no surprise to anyone else. But what prompted this sudden newfound understanding?”
“I would have thought that obvious. Who else would travel from Enfusa Temple to the Capital and on to Shinoda Forest in search of foxes playing tricks? It’s not as if anyone’s asked me to do it. Frankly I still don’t understand why you came along.”
“My reasons are my own,” Kenji said, “but yours are plain enough, which is part of the reason I did come. Lord Yamada, are you so certain that we’re chasing a fox?”
I took a deep breath. “To the best of my knowledge, Princess Teiko never traveled through, never even set foot in Shinoda Forest in her lifetime. Even assuming that her ghost walks the earth still—a possibility I consider extremely remote—there is no reason, none at all, for her to manifest within Shinoda Forest. Therefore, it is someone or something counterfeiting her appearance, and a shapeshifter such as a fox would be the obvious choice. Forgive my arrogance, but one reason to do so would be to lure me there.”
“Which would be a good argument for staying away,” Kenji pointed out.
“Risky, perhaps, but the one sure way to reveal a trap is to fall into it.”
Kenji didn’t say anything for a while. We walked in a heavy silence that the world around us did not share. It was barely mid-morning, but already the heat was becoming oppressive. Birds sang anyway, as well as cicadas, from almost every tree along the road.
We finally stopped to rest by a cold spring, and after we had drunk our fill and eaten a rice ball, we sat on opposite sides of the spring and wrapped our silence around us like cloaks. Two years had passed since Princess Teiko’s death, most of which I had spent in the dregs of a saké cup, until Kenji found me at Enfusa.
“Say what you’re thinking, Kenji-san,” I said finally. “I know you’re dying to do so.”
“Lord Yamada, do I really need to point out that this may actually be Princess Teiko’s ghost? Can you honestly tell me that you have not thought of this?”
“Of course he has.”
Prince Kanemore stood just downstream from the spring. It was obvious to me now that he had used the sound of the water to help mask his approach, not that he would have needed much cover. For the son of an Emperor, Kanemore was very much at home in the countryside, and there were hunters and assassins alike who envied his stealth. He looked a little older than I remembered him. He carried a bow and wore a tachi, along with a companion dagger thrust edge-up into his sash. Save for the lack of armor, I would have thought him dressed for war.
I put aside my surprise long enough to touch my forehead to the ground, a move Kenji quickly copied. “To what do we owe this honor, Prince Kanemore?” I asked.
“Oh, get up. It’s just us now,” Kanemore said, and he sat down on a nearby rock without further ceremony. “I’m here for the same reason you are. I do not believe my sister’s ghost haunts Shinoda Forest. And yet, part of me hopes that she does.”
I sat back down. “Prince, your sister had no regrets and no unfinished business. I fear that is all on our side.”
“I think so too. But as your astute friend was likely to point out,” he nodded at Kenji, “what if we’re wrong? Unless I am mistaken, you would like to be such a regret.”
“I would be ashamed to be such a selfish person,” I said.
“Yet you persist in wondering,” Kanemore said. “As do I, and so here we are. Shall we hunt our ghosts together?”
“You are right, Highness, as usual.”
We were approaching the borders of Shinoda Forest. So far I had seen two of the monsters called youkai and at least one actual ghost. Kenji held a ward in each hand and had been muttering sutras for the past half hour. I didn’t blame him. From here on, the monster and demon population was only going to increase.
Kanemore frowned. “About what particularly?”
“About both my feelings and what lies at the end of this search. We’re not hunting ghosts, except perhaps among our own regrets. No, I have no doubt that a fox has lured us to Shinoda Forest. I even think I know which one. The only question I have at this point is why.”
“How about to deceive and beguile us and eat our livers?” Kenji asked.
“I rather doubt that any of our livers would be much of a delicacy,” Kanemore said. “Or does this particular fox have a reason to want your liver?”
That last was directed at me. “Quite the opposite. I once did her a tremendous favor, so I confess myself baffled.”
“At least I have lived to see that, Lord Yamada.”
It was a new voice, and one that I was not expecting. Even Prince Kanemore was caught completely by surprise. Princess Teiko stood before us on a large flat shelf of gray-white stone lying beside the path. One instant she wasn’t there, and the next she was, looking every bit as heart-wrenchingly beautiful as I remembered.
Kenji just stared. Prince Kanemore obviously couldn’t decide between drawing his tachi or throwing himself face down before the image of his late sister. I just smiled and bowed low.
“Greetings, Lady Kuzunoha.”
The image of Princess Teiko shimmered, and then an unnaturally large white fox vixen with two bushy tails stood on the boulder. I’d have thought it was smiling, if a fox could smile. Then the image shimmered again, and the fox I knew as Lady Kuzunoha, once wife and consort to the leader of the Abe clan, stood in front of us. Her human form was lovely, but it was not that of Princess Teiko. She kneeled gracefully and bowed low to us.
“Forgive me, but I knew you would come.”
Now Prince Kanemore did reach for his tachi, but I stopped him. “No, Highness.”
Kanemore glared at me. “This is a fox demon!”
“True. It is also the noble Lady Kuzunoha,” I said, “and I would like to hear what she has to say.”
Now both Kenji and Kanemore were staring at me, but Lady Kuzunoha smiled. “It is not often one hears ‘noble’ applied to a fox,” she said.
“I choose my words carefully,” I said. “For your sake, I hope you do the same. I doubt Prince Kanemore sees the humor in your little joke.”
“This is not a joke, Lord Yamada. I apologize for using this method to get your attention, but it was impossible for me to come to you. I needed you to come to me.”
“But why?” Kenji asked.
She looked at him. “Because I owe Lord Yamada a debt, which I hope now to repay.” She turned back to the other two men and bowed low. “This concerns Prince Kanemore as well, so I do pray Your Highness will listen to me before you think of your sword again.”
“I had not stopped thinking of my sword,” Prince Kanemore said gruffly. “But I am listening. What do you wish of us?”
“Only to warn you. This concerns Teiko’s son, the heir to the throne. He is in great danger.”
Kanemore scowled, and it was such a powerful scowl that I half expected the skies above to scowl as well.
“Prince Takahito? He has been in danger since he was named heir. The only reason I remain at court is to protect him.”
She sighed. “I know your reputation, Prince Kanemore, and I know that it is well-deserved. But I do not think you alone will be enough. His enemies are plotting to send an assassin after him.”
While I did want specifics, I didn’t need to ask whom she meant as a group. While none of them dared to move against the Crown Prince directly, any one of a number of the Fujiwara clan, not excluding the Chancellor, would shed no tears if he were removed from the succession. Just so long as the crime could not be traced back to them, of course. Had my dream been prophetic or merely my own suspicious nature proven correct?
“Who is the assassin?” I asked. “Do you know?”
“Lord Yamada, it was supposed to be me.”
Kenji had set his wards around our camp. They wouldn’t stop a human, but Kenji knew his business, and no youkai or demon or ghost in the forest would get past them.
Despite these precautions, Prince Kanemore sat on a fallen log with his back to the fire, his eyes slowly scanning the darkness between the trees. Kenji was out gathering firewood on the opposite side of the camp. Now and then we could hear him cursing as he tripped over a root or snagged a bramble in the darkness.
“Do you believe her?” Prince Kanemore asked.
A rather troubling question. I didn’t pretend to understand the fullness of Lady Kuzunoha’s reasoning—she was, after all, a fox—but I was reasonably certain of at least part of the answer.
“That she was approached by agents of the Fujiwara? Yes. That she refused them? Also yes. That those agents sought contact with other denizens of this place? Again, yes.”
“It’s very worrying,” Kanemore said. “I have seen Lady Kuzunoha’s human form. It would be relatively easy for such a...charming assassin to gain access to the inner Court. She says she refused, and you believe her. Is that your inclination, or do you have reasons?”
I almost smiled. Aside from his martial prowess, Prince Kanemore was a very fine tactician, too good not to consider all possibilities in a situation. One of those possibilities being that I was completely wrong about Lady Kuzunoha. However, there was something that I don’t think even he had considered.
“Prince, by masquerading as Princess Teiko she drew attention to herself, something a fox does not do without reason. Further, we would be far from the only interested parties to hear of it. It’s likely that our presence in Shinoda Forest is known.”
He frowned. “Your point?”
“The Fujiwara will know that Lady Kuzunoha met with us. It will not take much thought to know why. By alerting us to the plot, she’s done us a service and at the same time placed herself in a great deal of danger. That is one reason I’m inclined to believe her. However....”
Kenji chose this moment to return to the camp. He held a small bundle of broken limbs, but he kept glancing behind him.
“I hear voices,” he said. “I think they’re coming this way.”
I had hoped I was wrong. Sadly, no. The fire had been a bad idea, in hindsight. That and the wards would keep the denizens of Shinoda Forest at bay, but not these. For the ones coming, it was a beacon.
“What of it? Don’t you trust your wards?” Kanemore asked.
I reached for my own tachi. “These are not youkai, Highness. These are worse.”
Kanemore had already drawn his own sword. “Demons?”
They looked like lighter shadows moving against darker shadows, but I knew that was their clothing. Every now and then I caught the glint of steel through the trees. “Get your staff, Kenji.”
“There are many, but we are not encircled,” Kenji pointed out. “We could run.”
Prince Kanemore sighed. “Have you forgotten where we are? Shinoda Forest is full of monsters and demons and night creatures. Not a viable alternative.” He peered into the darkness. “Who are they?”
“Agents of the Fujiwara,” I said. “I wager that they realized from the start that Lady Kuzunoha would refuse them. In my arrogance I thought the trap was for me, but now I believe their real intent was to lure you here, Highness. Away from the Court and any witnesses, your death could easily be blamed on the youkai of Shinoda Forest, with only the word of a fox demon to counter it.”
“Which no one would believe, obviously,” Kanemore said.
I bowed. “Just so. And with Your Highness out of the way, Takahito’s ‘accidental’ demise would be simpler to arrange.”
Kanemore swore softly. “You must admire the elegant simplicity of the plot,” he said, “even if it is utterly without honor.”
The fire was burning low, but we still moved to put the dying embers between us and our attackers; silhouetting ourselves in front of it would invite arrows.
Kenji frowned and clutched his staff tightly. “Why haven’t they attacked? If they want us, they have us. We’re far outnumbered.”
It was hard to see in the darkness, but it seemed that the assassins were moving in an odd pattern, darting tree to tree, ignoring bushes or other trees that were better cover. Then I realized they weren’t attempting stealth.
“They’re removing your wards, Kenji-san.”
We all heard the low-pitched roar coming out of thedarkness.
“Unless,” I said, “they’re taking no chances. It seems they’ve made a bargain with at least one resident of this forest.”
There were oni, terrible ogres, in Shinoda Forest. One for certain and possibly more, and in my previous visits I had barely managed to avoid them. Apparently we would not be so fortunate this time.
It came crashing through the trees like the implacable brute it was. Red skin, black hair, curling tusks. It was twice the height of a human, thicker than two saké barrels, and it carried a massive club bound in black iron. The human shadows held back. I didn’t blame them. They had managed to set the devil loose on us, but that didn’t mean it was to be trusted.
Kenji quickly began to chant a sutra, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to do much more than slow the oni down. As I looked at the thing, my tachi felt no more substantial in my hand than a lady’s hairpin, but it was better than nothing.
Prince Kanemore stood a half-step in front of us, his tachi held low. I couldn’t see his face, but his entire posture was not that of a man in danger of his life. For an instant I wondered if he’d entered some state of resignation to his fate, since he didn’t move in the slightest as the oni approached us, its club raised high.
“Highness, look out!”
It felt a foolish thing to say, even as I was shouting it, but the creature scattered the remnants of our fire as he charged through and seemed about to smash the prince’s head in where he stood, but Kanemore took one quick step back, and the club thudded harmlessly into the earth.
As for what happened next, well, I saw it and I’m still not sure I believe it. Kanemore sprang forward even faster than he had stepped back. Just as the oni began to raise his club for another strike, Prince Kanemore’s forward leap landed him directly on its club, on which he balanced as if it were no more unsteady than a log bridge over a stream. One more step and he was level with the oni’s thick neck. It had time only to bellow in rage and surprise before Prince Kanemore, with one swift, precise motion, cut its head off.
Kanemore was standing back in his place between us before the creature had time to fall.
I had always known that Prince Kanemore was formidable. I don’t think I realized until that moment exactly how formidable he was. Then the ogre’s headless body crashed to the earth, and the human assassins, with barely a moment’s hesitation, pressed forward.
There were three of us, and both Kenji and I knew how to handle ourselves in a fight, but Prince Kanemore was the one who counted. Even so, he was still no more than human, and no one, not even the prince, could fend off a more than a score of attackers at once.
“It’s rude to keep us waiting,” Prince Kanemore called out. “Or are you hoping another oni passes by?”
A young man finally emerged into the weak light, dressed in a monk’s robes and carrying a ringed staff much like Kenji’s. “We’ve brought force enough,” he said. “Killing that brute won’t save you.”
Kenji scowled. “I know you. You’re a sōhei from Enryaku Temple. What is the meaning of this?”
“Meaning? Only that the right person ascend the throne. We’re here to see to it.”
It appeared that the sōhei, the warrior monks that the temples sometimes used in religious disputes among themselves, had been brought to bear against a matter concerning the Imperial Court. If Enryaku Temple was meddling in politics again, that was good to know, assuming we lived long enough to make use of the information. If monks made up the rest of his forces, on the other hand, our chances of survival had lessened considerably. A substantial portion of the monks at Enryaku had always been trained fighting men, and their reputation as skilled warriors was well known.
“And who would this ‘right person’ be, monk?” Kanemore asked. There was an edge in his voice I had heard before, and I was grateful that I was not that young monk just then.
“Such knowledge does not matter to one about to pass from this world of pain,” the monk said and raised one hand in blessing.
It was the signal to attack.
The first ten through the trees were dressed as sōhei; their armor had been darkened for stealth and they carried swords, not staffs as their leader did. But there were only ten, by my count. Those who came after were more of a ragtag bunch, armed with crude weapons. No matter; there were more than enough of them.
Standing our ground meant being surrounded and cut down. Kanemore nodded at me and I understood his intent. He charged right and I charged left, and as the sōhei pressed on toward Kenji, we turned the two flanks to face us.
I saw one of the monks fall immediately, but I was too busy staying alive to follow Kanemore’s progress. I managed to cut one of them in the leg and he was down, and then I was merely faced with two, more cautious than the one now on the ground trying to keep from bleeding to death.
I wasn’t getting any openings, and all my attention was on defending against both at once. I knew more attackers were coming and also knew I was about to die and soon Kanemore as well, and then, in due course, Prince Takahito.
It seems I’ve failed you after all, Teiko-hime.
Something hit one of the men attacking me. It looked like a white blur, but suddenly there was only one man in front of me, a man startled and distracted and off guard, so I killed him. Then I was able to see what had knocked down the other man.
It was Lady Kuzunoha.
She was in full fox-demon form, at least four times larger than a normal fox, with two tails and pure white fur now spattered with red. She had torn the first man’s throat out. She tilted back her bloody muzzle and she screamed, and for a moment almost everyone froze in place.
Prince Kanemore, two dead bodies at his feet, seized the opportunity to take down a third sōhei. Kenji was bloodied but still standing. The men behind the monks looked behind them as a chorus of answering shrieks rose from the forest from where they had come
I was careful to raise my voice enough so that the surviving attackers could hear. “Perhaps it wasn’t wise to remove the seals.”
A wave rolled out of the forest. Not just foxes, but water-goblins, several wild-haired ghosts, and youkai of all sorts. The fight turned in that instant, and now the attackers were in full disarray. All of the men except the sōhei tried to run, but there was nowhere to go.
The criminals and other rabble were pulled down first. The remaining sōhei abandoned their attack for mutual defense, but now the odds were overwhelmingly not in their favor. One by one they died, until there was only one left, spared only because Lady Kuzunoha adopted her human form again and stood over him.
“Not this one,” she said clearly, and the youkai drew back. At another word from her, the rest of the denizens of Shinoda Forest withdrew silently into the woods, while Lady Kuzunoha daintily wiped the blood from her lips with a small cloth.
Prince Kanemore was winded but unharmed. Kenji’s wounds were dramatic but not serious, and for a few moments I was busy binding them up.
“It seems we owe you our lives, Lady Kuzunoha,” Prince Kanemore said after he had caught his breath. He bowed to her.
“We would have come sooner,” she said, nodding toward Kenji. “But it took us some time to find a way past your friend’s handiwork. Fortunately, your attackers cleared a path for us.” She then noticed the dead oni. “Oh, that one. He always was an idiot.” She looked down at the cowering young priest and nudged him with her foot. “Get up.”
“How did you know?” I asked.
“I was already suspicious, as I imagine you were. When I learned that there were men in our forest aside from yourselves, it was not hard to ascertain their intentions. And yet I cannot even count this service against my debt to you, Lord Yamada.”
“It was strictly self-interest. If Prince Kanemore had been slain in Shinoda Forest, it would have been necessary for the Imperial Court to take action. I fancy that those most responsible for the crime would have insisted the most stridently, and I did not want our home burned down around us.”
Kanemore bowed again. “For what it may be worth, Shinoda Forest will not be touched so long as I have any say in the matter.”
I could see that Prince Kanemore’s opinion of Lady Kuzunoha had elevated considerably since their first meeting, but I wasn’t surprised. She had that effect.
“I have unfinished business with this one,” she said, kicking the priest again, who would likely have cowered lower, if that were possible.
“I think we do as well,” I said. “May we go first?”
Lady Kuzunoha demurely withdrew a few paces while I reached down and hauled the monk to his feet. He wasn’t entirely steady. He still held his staff, and he used it to lean on. I should have taken it away from him, but part of me hoped he would do something foolish.
“Who set you against Prince Kanemore?” I asked.
“No one,” he muttered. “I thought there were those who would reward me within the Court if Prince Kanemore was removed.”
It almost sounded plausible, if one assumed the fellow was a complete simpleton. I did not so assume. “So you took it upon yourself to involve the sōhei of Enryaku Temple in a plot to murder a Royal Prince on the off-chance that someone would approve? Sir Monk, you will have to do better than that.”
“Much better,” Kenji growled.
“The abbot of Enryaku ordered it,” the monk said then, pushing my patience just a little closer to its limit.
“If the abbot had been involved, he would not have trusted this mission to so few. More, I know the abbot. As does Prince Kanemore. We do not believe you. Now. I will not ask this again.”
“Nor will I.”
Prince Kanemore took one step forward, and his blade flashed in the weak light. The monk fell, and for a moment I thought Prince Kanemore had lost patience and killed him. Then I realized he had only sliced through the monk’s staff, sending him tumbling back to the ground.
“Search him,” Kanemore growled, and I held the man down while Kenji did the honors.
The man was carrying almost nothing, save a wrinkled slip of paper with some writing. Kenji handed it to me. “It’s a love poem, and I do not think it was written by our young man here.”
Kanemore scowled. “Let me see.”
I handed the paper over, but he did little more than glance at it. “The reference to the wisteria is no surprise. It’s the Fujiwara emblem. What interests me is that the poem also makes reference to the willow tree. Would you care to explain, monk?”
He just glared at us, and Prince Kanemore sighed. “I know who our enemy is, and I will deal with it...with the assistance of the good monk here. To that end, Lady Kuzunoha, I must ask that you refrain from ripping him to shreds, at least until I am done with him.”
“I will never betray her!” the monk shouted, and at last I understood. It was not politics or profit—at least on the young fool monk’s part—but love. And yes, monks and priests were supposed to be above and removed from such things. In theory. In practice, well, there were as many of casual piety like my friend Kenji as not. I almost sympathized with the man.
“You already have,” Kanemore said. “And you will continue to do so for a while yet. Otherwise....”
“You can kill me if you wish.”
Prince Kanemore smiled. “That’s true. Your life does belong to me. And I am fully within my rights to bestow that life upon Lady Kuzunoha.”
Lady Kuzunoha, who had been following the conversation with amused interest, knew a hint when she heard one. Immediately she was in full fox-demon form. Her teeth were very long and sharp.
“Give him to me,” she said. “I want to play.”
For a moment the monk apparently forgot to breathe. He turned back to Prince Kanemore like a drowning man grasping a twig. “What...what do you want me to do?”
Prince Kanemore was circumspect as always, but later I heard that Lady Akiko, known at the Court as Willow, sister to the Emperor’s Third Wife and aunt of one of the rival claimants to the Throne, had suddenly decided to leave the Court to take Holy Orders. I also heard that Prince Kanemore and his private guard personally escorted her to a very distant western temple to assure her safety. As for the young monk, I never did discover what happened to him. Nor did I ask. I had other things on my mind.
It was six months before I entered Shinoda Forest again. It was perhaps foolish to do so, especially alone, but unfinished business was unfinished business, and I had no idea how else to settle this particular bit.
I followed the path to the shelf of stone where I had seen Lady Kuzunoha in the image of Princess Teiko. I kneeled before the stone and closed my eyes, bringing the memory of Princess Teiko back to me.
“I have failed,” I said. “I thought I could hang onto my anger and use it to push me to forget you. But as long as the anger was there, so were you.”
“You were right to be angry,” she said.
I opened my eyes. Princess Teiko kneeled on the rock, not in an elaborate Court dress but as I had seen her last, dressed in traveling clothes at the camp near Lake Biwa. She was sipping tea. I closed my eyes, blinked, but she was still there. I thought I knew why.
“I tried to drink free of you and of myself. That did not work either.”
“Obviously,” she said, but that was all.
“I knew what I had to do. I chose drink instead. It was easier...no, not easier. At the time it was possible. I was weak, perhaps, but I did what I could do, and now that’s done. I will be ready to help your brother Kanemore when and if he needs me. I will see your son on the throne. There is just one more thing I must do first.”
“Then do it,” she said. “For both our sakes.”
“For using me...for taking advantage of my affections for your own ends. For everything. I understand why you did. I always understood, but only now I can forgive you for all of it. And I do.”
She smiled then, and the image of Princess Teiko bowed low. “Thank you.”
I returned the bow. When I looked up again, she was gone.
“Lord Yamada? This is an unexpected pleasure.”
Lady Kuzunoha stood beside the stone, looking at me. I think she was amused, but I wasn’t certain. As with Princess Teiko, it was—had been, rather, hard to tell sometimes.
“I think our debts are properly settled, Lady Kuzunoha,” I said.
She smiled at me then. “Lord Yamada, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Lady Kuzunoha looked a little puzzled. Or perhaps it was my imagination. I didn’t know for sure, but that was all right. There were times when it simply wasn’t wise to be certain.