Kenji found me reading in my newly cleaned yet persistently shabby quarters. When I continued to read even after he’d grunted a greeting and seated himself on my threadbare second-best cushion, he began to frown.
“Lord Yamada, I know for a fact that you’re not illiterate. Are you having trouble reading that letter, or are you perhaps lingering over a lady’s love poem?”
I shrugged. “Since Prince Kanemore is even less feminine than you are, we can eliminate the second option. Nor am I having difficulty; I’ve managed to read it at least three times since you’ve arrived. I know what this document says, Kenji-san. My problem is that I have no idea what it means.” I held up the paper. “This is an Imperial Commission. I’ve been awarded the income of a rather prosperous estate near Mount Hiei.”
Kenji’s frown disappeared. “An estate? But that’s wonderful!”
On the face of the matter I had to agree. While the land technically belonged to the Imperial Family, I had been assigned the position of steward, which gave me control of all the fruits of its production except for a modest percentage that was reserved for the royal coffers. Since the estate in question produced both rice and woven hemp in significant amounts, the steward’s portion amounted to quite a handsome income. Even better, it was common practice for stewards to appoint a deputy to handle the actual day-to-day running of the estate; in theory I could remain in the Capital and never set foot on the place.
I sighed. “One would certainly think so.”
Kenji rubbed the stubble on his head and turned his gaze toward Heaven. “Lord Yamada, as a priest of the Eightfold Path, I recognize that this material world is mere illusion. Yet some illusions are better than others, and there’s nothing wrong with a little security for your declining years. Aren’t you tired of being poor?”
“Security is the greatest illusion of all. As for my poverty, it was more of a problem when I was drinking. Don’t mistake me—I am not ungrateful, Kenji-san. I am merely puzzled.”
“Prince Kanemore is your friend. Why would he not want to help you?”
I shrugged. “He would and does. Yet his own estates are barely adequate for his needs, which, due to his position, are far greater than mine. More to the point, such prizes as this are reserved for those of high rank who have served the Court both openly and ostentatiously; I can be accused of neither. My good fortune simply makes no sense.”
Kenji frowned again. “As much as it pains me—I see your point. Perhaps you should ask the prince.”
“Easily arranged. The commission letter was accompanied by a summons. I have an audience with His Highness this afternoon. Oddly enough, so do you. That’s why I sent for you.” I showed him the text of the summons.
Kenji frowned again. “What would Prince Kanemore want with me?”
“I don’t know. But I’m certain that your summons is another piece of the puzzle.”
We entered the palace grounds through the east gate. The Minor Captain of the Guards was a young Fujiwara, maybe twenty years old, though Minamoto archers made up the bulk of the detachment. Our summons meant there was no difficulty about getting in, though the captain did look at us through narrowed eyes as we passed through the gate.
Not that I could blame him—Kenji and I made a disreputable-looking pair at the best of times, though we had both done our best to appear presentable. The green hunting coat I wore over my hitatare was tatty but clean, and Kenji had thrown a new surplice over his stained robes. I glanced back once to see the captain’s gaze still following us, and he quickly looked away. We were met near the gardens by a young page attired in blue who led us to Prince Kanemore’s quarters within one of several mansions reserved for the Imperial Family.
We were ushered into a formal audience hall, where Prince Kanemore sat on a raised dais by the rear wall. He was in his mid-thirties, strongly-built and handsome except for a scar on his left cheek. He looked a bit tired but in good health. His ornate tachi rested upright at his side on a black lacquered stand decorated with sprinkles of gold leaf. As a rule, an Imperial Prince didn’t keep his sword quite that close to hand, but then Kanemore wasn’t a typical prince. More warrior than courtier, palace life didn’t especially suit him. Yet he was the maternal uncle of the Crown Prince, and as such, his duty tied him to the Court until his nephew was safely on the throne.
Kenji and I kneeled and bowed formally, but Kanemore quickly dismissed his attendants and left the dais to join us on the floor cushions.
“It’s good to see you again, Prince,” I said.
“And you, my friend. Thank you both for answering my summons.”
There was no chance that we would do otherwise, but of course he knew that. He smiled a little wistfully. “I suppose you’re wondering about your commission.”
“I am grateful, of course, but I did find it a bit... strange, Highness.”
“No doubt. Now then, what do you know of a man named Fujiwara Yasunori?”
The name didn’t bring up any immediate associations, and I said as much.
“I’m not surprised. He was Minister of the Crown Prince’s Household in my father’s time. The estate in your commission was originally assigned to him. There was one odd thing, and much remarked upon at the time—rather than appoint a deputy, Yasunori chose to leave the Court and assume the office of steward himself, and he held it until his recent passing.”
That was indeed odd. When a noble gave up Court life willingly, it was usually to take holy orders. This person had instead decided to give up both Court and Capital to retire to a rural estate and, in essence, watch rice grow.
Kenji spoke up. “With respect, gentlemen, and to my own surprise, I may have some information on this matter.”
This was also a surprise to me, and apparently to Kanemore as well. “Go on,” he said.
“For a time after I was ordained, I served at Enryaku Temple on Mt. Hiei. One of the primary functions of any temple, of course, is to arrange and conduct funerals. Soon after I arrived, I was asked to oversee the rituals for Yasunori’s principal wife, Lady Michiko. There had been a plague in the Capital at that time and she succumbed. That was thirty years ago, which, if I am not mistaken, was shortly before Lord Yasunori left the Court. A coincidence, perhaps—if one believed in such things.”
“Grief?” I asked.
Kanemore looked thoughtful. “It’s possible. He never remarried. Regardless, after Yasunori’s passing, it was decided that the stewardship should pass to his nephew, Tadanobu. He of course appointed a deputy, but the man disappeared before he could take up his duties. In due course Tadanobu appointed a new deputy, who also disappeared. No trace of either man has been found. Tadanobu appointed a third, but this one didn’t disappear.”
Kenji and I exchanged glances. “I hesitate to ask,” I said.
“He was found by a farmer, lying beside the road near the valley’s entrance. He appeared to have been shot with hundreds of arrows, though no traces of any arrows remained.”
“Bandits?” Kenji asked.
“With the sohei, the warrior monks of Enryaku Temple, so close? None would dare. That road is safer than some in the Capital, normally,” Kanemore said. “That is part of the... delicacy, of this matter.”
Prince Kanemore seemed hesitant, and that was not a condition I associated with him. I glanced around and made certain that no one else was within earshot before I spoke again. “You suspect the monks of Hieizan might be involved. Why?”
Kanemore looked grim. “The estate has no bushi of its own. If Tadanobu’s deputy was indeed killed by archers, the warrior monks of the temple were the only ones who could have done it. As to why, I would think that would be obvious—by removing Tadanobu’s deputies, they prevent him from assuming the stewardship.”
“Ah. They want the estate for themselves,” I said. “It must gall them to have such a rich prize so close and yet out of their reach. Even so, you know the character of the abbot as well as I do. This is not the sort of thing he would condone.”
Kenji spoke up. “Nor would he have to do so. In such a large organization as Enryaku-ji, it’s possible someone within the temple acted on their own initiative.”
Kanemore looked thoughtful. “It is also possible that the abbot has lost control of the situation. There has been open conflict between the temple and the Court several times in the past, and if Enryaku-ji’s military arm is on the move now, whatever the reason or catalyst, the implications are far more serious than the income of one estate. The Court may be headed for an open confrontation that, to be blunt, the Emperor is ill-prepared to face.”
I knew the truth of that. Most of the city’s guard and police were commanded by high-ranking gentlemen who looked on a military assignment as beneath them and its duties as inconveniences to be avoided. The true might of the Emperor was in the military families in the provinces, who could be mustered but this took time, nor could it be done without alerting the temple. Which, if it really was mobilizing, could prompt Enryaku-ji to strike immediately. Kanemore was right to be concerned, and with the safety of my friend and the Crown Prince both now at issue, so was I.
He continued, “Tadanobu was resolved to make the journey to the estate in person, and so his family asked that his commission be withdrawn so that he would not, for his own safety. That was when I thought of you.”
Kenji frowned. “Your pardon, Prince Kanemore, but are you trying to get Lord Yamada killed?”
“I fancy he’s trying to give me an opportunity,” I said. “And now this commission makes perfect sense. If I can unravel who is responsible for these deaths and disappearances and apprise the Court of the true situation, my reward is the estate income as specified, yes?”
Kanemore sighed. “Just so. This is a chance not likely to repeat, but it is also an obviously dangerous undertaking. You have the commission, but you also have the right to refuse. I will not think less of you if you do so.”
“And I will not weigh it against you if I die,” I said, and I smiled. “But you still haven’t explained why you summoned Kenji.”
The prince laughed. “I would have thought that obvious as well. It’s possible that no one at Enryaku-ji or the estate itself was responsible for the fate of the three deputy stewards. If they were not killed by bandits or sohei or angry farmers, then what killed them may be of a different nature. The manner of the third deputy’s death is especially troubling.”
“You mean some sort of monster or demon,” Kenji said.
“Yes, Priest. I do.”
Kenji bowed. “I’m not sure what reward you had in mind for me,” he said. “But with all due deference to your Highness, my price has just gone up.”
The journey from the Capital to the estate wasn’t an especially long one; Mt. Hiei itself was visible from the city, and while the estate wasn’t exactly adjacent to the mountain, the same road that passed the mountain did lead near to it. While the late summer heat was oppressive in the Capital, here in the mountains it was much more pleasant. Mt. Hiei loomed over us as Kenji and I stopped to rest and refresh ourselves at a traveler’s shelter at the foot of the mountain.
I looked up at the seemingly peaceful temple complex nestled on the slopes of the mountain. “Curious. I don’t hear anything.”
Kenji frowned. “What did you expect to hear?”
“Any significant force of either monks or secular bushi cannot be mustering on this mountain. You simply cannot put such a large group of men together in a relatively confined space without noise. We should hear the sound of sparring, shouts, arguments, something.”
“Then what killed Tadanobu’s deputy steward, if not sohei archers?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I’ve been thinking about that as well. If the temple was mustering, wouldn’t they have the sense to dispose of the deputy in a less obvious manner, as apparently happened to the first two? The man’s death appears almost calculated to draw attention, which the temple would certainly wish to avoid if they planned to make a show of force.”
“What you say may be true,” said Kenji, looking up toward the fortified monastery. “But it’s not what’s puzzling me.”
“Oh? Then what is?”
“That an estate so close to Mt. Hiei isn’t already part of the temple’s endowment. It’s the sort of thing they would normally receive as a gift from the Imperial Family after healing a sickness or offering effective prayers for the safe birth of an heir. Why would they need to resort to violence?”
“The stewardship belonged to the Fujiwara clan, Kenji-san. As much as the power of the temple concerns the Emperor, he wasn’t going to risk angering the Fujiwara by handing their estate to the monks of Mt. Hiei.”
Kenji sighed. “Do I have to point out that the Fujiwara are no longer an obstacle to the temple? Also, the temple has partisans and sympathizers everywhere. They will know your mission. If they are responsible for the disappearances, they will seek to do the same to us. If they are not, the monks will simply wait until you succeed in pacifying whatever is lurking along the road, and then proceed to make their petition the next time they’re up for reward. You are not a Fujiwara and your commission isn’t likely to deter them.”
I almost smiled. “Thank you.”
He frowned. “What for?”
“For reminding me of why I associate with you. You’re one of the few people I know who make me seem like a cheerful fellow by comparison.”
His face turned a little red. “I know how the temple works, Yamada-sama.”
So did I. While it was indeed a seat of piety and learning, Enryaku-ji was also interested in its position and status and, yes, power and influence at Court and with the other temples, which is why so many of them had taken up arms in the past. In other words, the monks remained men, no matter how much they sought to distance themselves from the world, and wealth was useful to any man. The monks of Enryaku-ji were no exception. But how far would they go to attain it?
“No doubt. Yet when crossing a dangerous bridge, it is best to keep one’s attention on the bridge and not worry about the tiger further along the road.”
Kenji looked grim. “And yet the tiger will have his turn.”
I also had no doubt that Kenji was correct, but there was no point worrying about it. At least, not yet.
When we left the shelter, it was early afternoon. Before mid-afternoon I was certain we were being shadowed, and I said as much.
Kenji scowled. “Sohei?”
“I think we’re going to find out. I would prefer that it be at a time and place of our own choosing.”
I did not get my wish. As I scanned the trees alongside the road ahead of us, looking for a good place for concealment, a group of four rather rough-looking fellows carrying cudgels stepped out from just such a place about forty paces in front of us. An equal number came trotting up the road behind us, apparently upon a pre-arranged signal. I saw a lone figure standing behind the second group, but after a moment he disappeared into the trees and did not join them. He was too far away for me to see his face, but I was almost certain he wasn’t a bandit.
Kenji scowled. “Kanemore did say that Yasunori’s household claimed that none of the deputy stewards ever arrived. Perhaps they were telling the truth.”
The same thought occurred to me. I didn’t draw my sword just then, but I kept my hand close to the hilt. “What is the meaning of this?” I called out to the closest group.
I wasn’t optimistic, and so it proved. The men were not inclined to conversation. The largest one, a thick-bodied man with bushy eyebrows, was acting as leader.
I quickly drew my sword. Kenji had his priestly staff, which was thick and reinforced with bands of copper about the top and bottom, at the ready. Fortunately for us, the ambush group tried to rush us without waiting for their companions. I dodged one swing from the leader’s heavy club and then killed him while he was out of position. Kenji accounted for a second in like manner. I barely evaded a third, and then the next group of four reached us, and Kenji and I were hard-pressed. While Prince Kanemore could likely have handled a band of such unskilled ruffians on his own, neither Kenji nor I were at his level, and we were now two against six.
I cut down a second man, but then a glancing blow numbed my sword arm up to the elbow. I managed not to drop the blade, but all I was able to do then was swing it in broad strokes to keep my enemies at bay; I could not wield it effectively. Kenji moved to cover my back, and now we were in the center of a ring of men shouting for our blood. The feeling was slowly returning to my arm, along with the pain of the blow, but all we could do was guard. One of our attackers picked up a stone from the side of the road and hurled it at my head. I dodged it but then barely avoiding getting brained when one of his companions seized the opportunity to dart in while I was distracted. Both Kenji and I were breathing hard by this time.
A little more patience on their part, and they have us. I would have cursed myself for being so careless, if there had been any point.
The man reached for another stone and was about to fling it when he stopped, looking puzzled. After a moment and without any sound or fuss, he toppled face-first into the dirt of the road, a long arrow sprouting from his back.
I didn’t have time to finish the thought. I heard the twang of the bowstring this time, and the thug attacking me screamed as an arrow ripped through his thigh. He leaned over, instinctively grasping the shaft, and I seized the chance and cut off his head. It rolled to a stop at the feet of one his three surviving companions, and that apparently decided the matter for them. They took to their heels, but a sixth man went down with an arrow through his neck before the surviving pair reached the cover of the woods.
The bowman stepped out of the trees and onto the road. He wasn’t in his guard robes now; he wore a tight-fitting hitatare and a plain hunting coat of dark gray, but I recognized him immediately.
“Minor Guard Captain Fujiwara no Tadanobu,” I said, between gulps of air. “You are quite the archer... thank you.”
The young man smiled. “You seemed to be doing well on your own,” he said, “but I did not think you would mind a little assistance.”
Kenji leaned on his staff, like me trying to catch his breath. “Mind? I will say prayers for anyone you name, free of obligation, for the next year.”
Tadanobu looked serious. “For my uncle, then, Lord Yasunori. He was a good man.” He glanced toward the trees on the other side of the road where the last of our attackers had fled. “Pity those two got away.”
I looked around. “Yes, it would have been better if we had managed to capture one alive. I would dearly love to know who set them on us.”
“It’s not as if they gave us much choice in the matter,” Kenji said, scowling.
Tadanobu examined the body of the first man he’d killed. “No, they meant your deaths, and no mistake. I think we can safely assume what happened to the unfortunate deputy stewards.”
“While I am in your debt,” I said, “I am a bit surprised to see you here, young sir. My understanding was that your family had prevented you from making this journey by having the commission withdrawn.”
He laughed. “True, but no one said anything about not making a pilgrimage to Mt. Hiei itself. Such is an act of piety.” Then his tone turned serious again. “Lord Yamada, I know what you must think. While I am disappointed in losing the income from my uncle’s estate, I am not without other means. Yet I apparently sent three men along this road to their deaths. I would like to know why.”
I was no admirer of the Fujiwara clan in general, but I had to admit that, every now and then, they produced men of worth. At that moment I considered that Tadanobu might be one such.
“Two men, I think,” I said.
He frowned. “But the third—”
“Was killed just outside the estate proper, and obviously not”—I glanced at the bodies on the ground—”by these fine fellows. If they were archers themselves, we would not be standing here now. That leaves the question of what did happen to the unfortunate third deputy.”
Tadanobu fell silent, but his glance strayed toward Mt. Hiei towering in the background, and that glance spoke volumes.
“You can speak freely in front of my friend here,” I said, nodding at Kenji. “There’s nothing you can say about Enryaku-ji that he hasn’t said himself.”
Tadanobu sighed. “Very well. I had kept some contact with my uncle over the years. I was rather fond of him. Every now and then he would write ominously of the monks of Enryaku-ji. He knew they coveted his estate. I did not think too much of it when the first man disappeared; a lone traveler can easily meet with misadventure. But after the second....”
“You suspected the temple.”
He looked a little defiant. “I did, though it may be impious of me.”
“Wise of you, rather,” Kenji said.
Tadanobu shrugged. “After the first two deputy stewards vanished I did not think to appoint another, but then Kintaro volunteered.”
Kenji frowned. “Mika Kintaro?”
“Yes. Did you know him?” Tadanobu asked.
“I knew of him. He was a low-ranking servant at Court. He was also a lay brother at Enryaku-ji.”
“Which you also knew,” I said, speaking to Tadanobu. “Or am I mistaken?”
“I wouldn’t have done it,” Tadanobu said softly, “but I was certain he would be safe. If the Temple was behind the first two attacks, as I believed, then I felt certain they would not harm Kintaro. His first loyalty was to Enryaku-ji, I knew, so why would they pass up the chance to have their own agent in place? And if he succeeded where the other two failed, I would know for certain that Enryaku-ji was involved and then could decide a course of action. But then Kintaro was killed too.”
My estimate of the young Fujiwara was rising by the moment, but there was a point he was overlooking.
“But not, as I stated before, by these men.” I nudged one of the bodies with the toe of my sandal. “Look at how they are dressed and armed. The unfortunate Kintaro was not killed by a cudgel and then buried in some deep hole in the woods, as I believe happened to the first two deputies. By all accounts his body had more holes than a fishing net. More, he did safely reach the entrance to the valley where the estate is located, as you expected, which would only have happened if these men had allowed him to pass unmolested. We still have no proof that Enryaku-ji is involved in this matter, but if they are, the circumstances of Kintaro’s death suggest that whoever killed him was not acting on behalf of the temple. Therefore we can rule out archers from Mt. Hiei.”
Tadanobu frowned. “But if not the Temple, then who?”
“That is a very good question, and one we will need to answer—”
We were interrupted by a scream from the woods in the direction our attackers had fled. Without a word all three of us set out into the woods at a run. The trees in this section were mostly chestnut and maple, with a few pines scattered here and there. There was little undergrowth, and we moved quickly. We had gone no more than the distance of two or three bowshots when we came across two bodies, which I immediately recognized as our assailants from the road. Each had been killed, by the look of it, by a single sword cut.
“Someone truly did not want anyone to question them,” Tadanobu said. “Not that we don’t already know who is behind this.”
I sighed. “Yes, but without a witness to that effect there’s no chance to prove it.”
Tadanobu just looked at me. “Would that have mattered?”
Kenji shrugged. “Minor Captain Tadanobu has a point. No monk of Enryaku-ji attacked us, so none was caught or killed to show the Temple’s complicity. Even if the men who did attack us were hired by the Temple and we had caught one of the louts alive, the temple could simply deny everything, and it would be their word against those of common thieves and murderers. Who would the Court believe?”
It pained me to admit, but I knew Kenji was right. If there was to be any justice at all in this matter, I would need to find it elsewhere.
There was no sign of whoever had killed the two men, but then we hadn’t expected these two to stay so close by. Since a renewed attack was unlikely, it made sense that they had remained to meet with someone, perhaps an employer. “Please, gentlemen, stay where you are for a moment.”
I started where the two bodies lay and walked around the spot in a gradually widening circle. There had been a late summer rain a few days before; there was still enough moisture in the forest floor to take a footprint, and soon I found some. They were faint, but telling. One man had killed both of them, and done it easily. Perhaps because they had not expected it. Or perhaps because the person in question had more than basic skill with a blade. I glanced further into the woods where bramble thickets grew and placed my wager. I bent over and picked up a small object up from the forest floor.
I called out to Kenji and Tadanobu, some distance away from me now. “These men were indeed killed by a sohei, a warrior monk from Enryaku Temple. Here’s our proof.”
I walked back to where they stood, and I could read the questions in their faces before they asked them, but I held up a hand for silence. They both frowned but obeyed. Together we made our way back to the road.
“What did you find?” Kenji asked once we were back on the road.
“An early chestnut. A rather nice one, too.”
The road turned into a broad path just before it reached the entrance to the valley. There we found a winsome young woman digging burdock in a small meadow adjacent to the path; the aroma of burdock root and the late summer flowers blooming there made a pleasant scent. The woman was dressed as a peasant farmer and wore a large reed hat, but I could easily imagine her in court robes moving about a palace. She was quite pretty, with hair so long, thick, and glossy black that any Lady of the Court would be jealous of it. When she saw us, she dropped her digging spike and bowed low.
“Greetings, noble sirs.”
I thought I detected a note of apprehension in her voice, which I quickly moved to dispel.
“We mean no harm. I am the new steward of this estate. My name is Yamada no Goji. What is your name, girl? Who is in charge here?”
She looked up at me, dark eyes wide and innocent. “You are not bad men...? Oh, forgive me. I’m called Kasumi, sir. No one is in charge. Our beloved Master is dead. Do you mean Mistress Aiko?”
I glanced at Tadanobu, who grunted. “A local woman who managed my late uncle’s household. I’ve met her a few times, and I know he held her in high regard. I gather she’s been holding the estate together since his passing.”
“She works hard,” Kasumi said.
I considered. “Kasumi, are you up here digging burdock root very often?”
“Oh, yes, sir. I am very good at gathering burdock. The best, Mistress Aiko says. I can take you to her, if you wish, but I really should stay here and finish my work. Would that be all right?”
“That will be fine, Kasumi,” I said. “We’ll find her.” I turned to Tadanobu. “If you will accompany us?”
Tadanobu frowned. “But I can’t—I gave my word not to enter the estate. Perhaps I should remain here and keep this charming girl company.”
I noted with some amusement that Kasumi was blushing, but I insisted. “That would not be a good idea. I do need you with me.”
He frowned. “You think there will be trouble within the estate itself?”
“I think there is already trouble, and Enryaku-ji is only part of it. We need to sort out the rest now, or all is for nothing. For the sake of your uncle’s memory, I need you to come with me. I will ask Prince Kanemore to intercede with your family if it becomes an issue. I will try to make certain it does not.”
Tadanobu reluctantly agreed, and we continued along the path, which began to slope downward. Almost immediately we could see the rice paddies spread out below us, thick and green with plants almost ready to harvest. Peasant farmers moved through the fields, adjusting the irrigation gates, funneling water with bamboo pipes. There would be holding tanks built higher on the hillside to catch and keep rainwater, though little would be needed now as the fields were almost ready to drain for harvest.
“I understand this was mostly swampland on the valley floor before it was drained and reclaimed. Look at it now,” Tadanobu said.
“Quite an accomplishment,” I said.
“It’s unfortunate that the Temple agrees,” muttered Kenji.
“There may be a solution to that,” I said.
Kenji and Tadanobu both looked at me. “What is it?” Tadanobu asked.
“If it proves possible, I’ll tell you. That is one thing we are here to discover.” I nodded at Kenji. “What were your impressions of Kasumi?”
“Lovely girl,” Kenji said. “If a bit simple. Also a little young for my—”
I sighed. “I meant what did your senses tell you?”
He frowned, then understanding dawned. “Oh. Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Nothing aside from the smell of burdock?”
He shook his head, looking puzzled. “Did I miss something?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t mention her hair. It’s a truly astonishing feature, to find such long, beautiful hair on a peasant girl. They usually keep it shorter. As for missing something, I think we’ve all been missing something. I know we have an ambush waiting for us back on the road. I should know, because I arranged it. I just hope we aren’t walking into another one on your uncle’s estate.”
“There are no warriors here, even if Mistress Aiko and her folk had some reason to wish us harm, which I do not believe to be the case,” Tadanobu said.
I glanced back up the path. “I would not be too sure of either one of those conclusions.”
We met one of the farmers on the path, an older man who bowed as we passed. “A girl named Kasumi told us that Mistress Aiko could be found here,” I said. “Is she a servant of Mistress Aiko, and are we on the correct path?”
“Yes, masters, to both. Just a little further and you’ll come to the manor house. You should be able to find her there.”
“Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.”
He bowed again and then hurried off on his business. “Very helpful,” I said again when he was out of earshot. “In fact, you just told me more than you knew.”
Tadanobu looked at me. “Lord Yamada, what are you talking about?”
“Just that there were depths to your late uncle that we had not suspected. I’m intrigued.”
Tadanobu sighed. “Is he often this impenetrable?”
That last was directed at Kenji, who just spread his hands. “I’ve seen worse but, yes, quite often. It really is annoying. Yet this time I do follow his meaning.” Kenji turned to me. “Before you ask, yes. I sensed it. I’m either tired or getting old, that I did not pick up on this sooner.”
Now Tadanobu was scowling at both of us, but I just shook my head. “I ask that you trust me for now, and take no action without a word from me. Will you promise?”
Tadanobu assented, though he looked skeptical—whether of me or the situation I did not bother to find out. We continued along the path skirting the rice fields and soon came to what could only be the manor house.
It was built in the shinden style of the Capital, with a plastered, wood-shingled wall and iron-reinforced wooden gate. A servant showed us inside. There was a garden, small but immaculate, in the courtyard. The main house had a high-peaked roof covered in the same plain wooden shingles as the wall, but the carpentry was on a par with any I had ever seen. Likewise for the two outbuildings linked by covered walkways that made up the east and west wings of the manor house. Tadanobu looked at the work approvingly.
“I remember how proud he was when this was completed; he wrote to me about it,” he said. “My uncle Yasunori was a man of impeccable taste.”
The servant, an older woman with a cheerful smile, bowed low. “Please come inside. I will fetch my mistress.”
“Please do. And tell her we would like to speak to her in private.”
“Of course, gentlemen.” The old woman hurried ahead.
We entered the reception hall. Yasunori had it set up like that of a mansion in the Capital, only there were bundles of Kasumi’s burdock piled against one wall, apparently awaiting stripping and preparing, and the scent was heavy. We heard muffled conversation from a nearby room and then the very faint footsteps of someone approaching.
A noblewoman would have spoken to us from the dais at the back wall of the room, from behind a curtain. Mistress Aiko instead entered through a side door, alone, and immediately kneeled and placed her forehead on the floor.
“Mistress Aiko? I am Lord Yamada,” I said. “This is the priest Kenji, and I believe you’ve met Lord Tadanobu.”
“We have been expecting your arrival,” she said. “And Master Tadanobu, it is good to see you again.”
“And you, Mistress Aiko. I would also like to offer my thanks for taking care of my late uncle for so long,” Tadanobu said.
“One does what one can,” she said, not looking at us.
I seated myself on one of the cushions arranged before the dais, and Kenji and Tadanobu followed my example. “Please sit up, Mistress Aiko. We have business to discuss.”
She raised herself to an upright kneeling position, and I got my first good look at her. Mistress Aiko was a handsome woman, perhaps in her forties. She was dressed in simple work clothes, though instead of pulling her hair up under a scarf like many peasant women, she wore it in one long strand down her back, tied with blue ribbons. She appeared to be no more than she was supposed to be, but the signs were there if one knew where to look. I heard a grunt from Kenji to my left, and I was certain he was carefully reaching for one of the spirit wards he kept about his person at all times. I glanced over at him.
“I do not believe you will need that,” I said to him.
It was a critical moment, and I did not know how it would end. I only knew how I wanted it to end. I could feel the tension in Mistress Aiko’s body, and I knew I was about to make matters worse, but there was no other way.
“Mistress Aiko, how long did Lord Yasunori know that you were a fox?”
She glared at me, but she did not move. “Lord Yasunori was a good man. Why do you think he would associate with such a creature?”
Tadanobu gasped, but I glanced at him and he kept still. “Because he did,” I said. “For thirty years or more. Or are you really going to claim that he didn’t know?”
“Of course he knew,” she said, softly. “How did you know?”
“Because I have some experience with your kind. And Kenji, here,” I said, nodding at the priest, “is spiritually sensitive to such things, when he isn’t too much in his cups or besotted by a pair of pretty eyes.”
Now Tadanobu spoke up. “You mean Kasumi? She’s a fox, too?”
I smiled. “No, I am fairly certain that Kasumi is not a fox. Isn’t that correct, Mistress Aiko?”
“It is,” she said.
“In fact, I would wager that only a small percentage of the inhabitants of this valley are foxes. The rest run the gamut, I suppose? Tanuki? Yokai? There are all sorts of shape-shifters, aside from foxes.”
Tadanobu put his hand on the hilt of his sword. “All the people in the valley? Murdered and replaced by monsters? Mistress Aiko, I can hardly believe—”
Her hands clenched into fists. “Believe what you will.”
I scowled at Tadanobu. “Please take your hand off your sword,” I said, “And I don’t think anyone has been murdered. At least, not here.”
“We are monsters,” Mistress Aiko said. “The young master said so. Why do you think we would spare humans? How do you know Lord Yasunori wasn’t killed and replaced by a shape-shifter years ago?”
I almost laughed. “If that were the case, then his death would not have been such an issue, would it? You could have simply replaced one of your kind with another, and continued the deception for years to come. He was not such an old man. No, Mistress Aiko. I want you to tell me how this came about.”
She looked away. “That is pointless. If you are going to slay me, do it now. You might even get out of the valley alive, if you move quickly. It’s not as if you will believe what I tell you.”
“While it is true that I cannot promise to believe you, I will promise on what remains of my honor to listen.”
She took a long breath and closed her eyes before she began to speak. “This valley was our home,” she said. “Long before the men came. They came with priests and warriors and they pushed us out. They killed many of us, and the rest were pushed to the fringes as the valley was remade for their needs. Our kind existed on the margins after that, stealing scraps when we could, staying out of sight in the vain hope that the men would forget we were there. No such luck. One day I was being chased by the warriors and my strength gave out. I collapsed beside the manor house in what is now Lord Yasunori’s garden, not twenty paces from where he sat.”
“Why was he out there, if there was no garden?”
“He was grieving. He had only been here a few days; I think he just meant to put himself in seclusion for a time after the death of his wife. I expected him to summon a servant to finish me off, but as he looked at me his expression barely changed. He was so sad. I don’t know if that affected his judgment, but he took pity on me. He had a servant bring me food and water, and I remained there until the warriors gave up the chase and I was strong enough to leave.”
“That was my uncle,” Tadanobu said. “He would not grieve one death while ordering another.”
Mistress Aiko covered her face with her sleeve. “I should have left well enough alone, I know, but I wanted to repay his kindness. I took the form of a human woman and entered the manor as a servant, but he wasn’t fooled. I think he would have slain me then, but in my desperation I was able to read his heart, and I changed again.”
“Let me guess,” I said, “Lady Michiko?”
“He was furious. He knew what I was,” she said, “but he couldn’t bring himself to slay the image of his dead wife... nor to give her up again. He had meant to appoint a deputy, but now he returned to Court just long enough to settle his affairs and retired to this estate.”
“And you became my late aunt for him,” Tadanobu said, sounding a little disgusted.
“You mustn’t think so poorly of him. It was that way at first,” she admitted. “And for some time thereafter. He mostly wanted to talk to me, just to talk, and for me to listen, as Lady Michiko. But there came a time when it was no longer necessary. I returned to my first disguise, the one you see now. It turned out I was very good at organizing and running a household. I was useful to him, even after his grief had eased, and he chose to remain.”
“What happened to the farmers of the valley?” Kenji asked.
“Priest, it may surprise you to know that most of the original farmers are still here,” she said. “But being human, many have died over the years and not all with issue. Replacing them became a problem, especially as the estate’s production grew and the need for workers increased.”
“Enryaku-ji?” I asked.
She sighed. “Just so. They didn’t dare interfere directly; Lord Yasunori still had too many connections at Court, but they did make it... difficult, for new families to come here. That was when Lord Yasunori and I together conceived the idea of letting more of my kind assume the farmer’s roles. The life of a peasant farmer is not such a grand thing, but I can tell you from experience that it is far better than being starved and hunted. More and more creatures like me joined us, and Lord Yasunori sent his warriors back to the Capital.”
“You still could have replaced him after he died,” I pointed out.
She smiled a sad smile. “No, we couldn’t. We have lived in this valley all our lives, far from the Court and nobility. There is no one here who could play that role and convince anyone who needed convincing. I was only Lady Michiko for awhile because he wanted me to be.”
“Certainly an unusual arrangement all around,” I said, “but one that seems to work. Your fields are in very good order.”
“It has worked up until now,” Mistress Aiko said. “But our Master’s death changed everything. I know we cannot be allowed to continue, and even if we could, we cannot keep Enryaku-ji out without Lord Yasunori’s protection. I think we all expected this, so do what you think you must with me; the rest of us will return to the forests.”
“You could have returned to the forests already,” Tadanobu said. “Why remain and put yourself at risk?”
Mistress Aiko bowed to him. “Risk is not really my nature,” she said, “but I thought Lord Yasunori’s heir deserved an explanation.”
I smiled. “Don’t be too quick to surrender. There may be another option.”
All three looked at me very curiously then.
“What do you propose?” asked Tadanobu.
“Do you have any human men here at all who are literate?” I asked Mistress Aiko.
“Some can do tallies, but read and write? I’m—I’m afraid not. Only a few of my kind do, including myself.”
“Then you will have to act for him, when such things are required. For now I just need the name of a human male who lives here. Preferably one not too old, who might live for a while yet? And could possibly be counterfeited later if needed?”
She looked startled, but after a moment her frown turned into one of concentration. “Let me think... ah, there’s Kinmori. He’s only about twenty-five and in good health. He’s one of our overseers. Why?”
“Because, officially, he’s going to be my deputy steward. Though perhaps it will be best not to tell him. He might get greedy.”
The warrior monk was waiting for us as we emerged from the valley path. Except for a monkish white cowl he wore instead of a helmet he looked like any other bushi, in a tight-fitting hitatare under black armor laced with red cords and a long tachi at his side. I breathed a little easier. I had long since given up the idea that Mt. Hiei was on a warlike footing, but I’d been wrong before. Even so, the situation was bad enough as it was.
He had the girl named Kasumi clutched in one thick arm, and with the other he pressed a dagger against her throat. Kasumi looked more puzzled than fearful. Tadanobu set an arrow to his bowstring, but I told him to hold.
“You there,” the monk said, pointing the dagger briefly at me, “you will surrender to me what you found in the woods or I will kill this girl.”
I snorted in derision. “What makes you think I care what happens to a peasant girl?”
He laughed then. It wasn’t a pleasant laugh. “Lord Yamada, we know you at Enryaku-ji. Your reputation is dubious at best, but you are not known to be cruel.”
“As opposed to yourself?” Kenji asked mildly.
“Silence, you worthless hedge priest,” the man said. “I was speaking to Lord Yamada.”
“I gather you plan to kill us all whether Lord Yamada surrenders the object or not,” Tadanobu said, scowling. “You will not find that easy to accomplish.”
The monk laughed again. “Kill you? Why should I? You will have no proof, and I am merely one nameless sohei. Accuse me, and the Temple will simply deny my existence. Persist, and my brothers will rise to defend their rights with force, if necessary. The Court will not risk that for your sake or twenty better.”
I shrugged. “I suppose we have no choice.” I took out the chestnut and tossed it to the monk, who loosened his grip just long enough to catch it. “Now let her go,” I said.
He stared at the chestnut. “What is this?!”
“I would think that would be obvious. It’s a chestnut.”
“Do you take me for a fool?”
I smiled then. “Honestly, monk, have you lost anything that would lead us to Enryaku-ji? Were those fools you killed carrying anything that would lead anyone to the Temple? When I practically shouted in the woods that I’d found proof, did you even stop for a moment to consider that I might be lying?”
From the stunned look on the man’s face, it was obvious he had not.
“Monk, I said what I said to lure you out, so that I would know who was responsible, and obviously it worked. As for you being a fool, that matter is already settled.”
“Don’t goad me, Lord Yamada. My brothers wait in ambush even as we speak. A word from me and you all die.”
I sighed. “Oh, honestly.... If that were the case all you had to do was wait for us on the road, ambush us in force and kill us, and that would be that. Why take a hostage? Obviously, because there are three of us, all armed and alert, and you are alone, monk. You hired those men to attack anyone traveling to the estate, and you killed the thugs who survived our fight when they became inconvenient. Now I am certain that Enryaku-ji’s sohei are not in the field and in force. Under orders or not, you’re acting by yourself.”
He scowled. “So? You still have no proof. This changes nothing!”
I smiled then. “You still do not understand me. For the Temple’s martial state I don’t need proof, just information, which my own eyes and ears indicated and your presence has just confirmed. As for your second point, I disagree. Whatever your rationale, you set to the work with far too much enthusiasm. I think there should be an accounting. Don’t you? You’re only making matters worse for yourself by threatening this innocent girl. You definitely should let her go. Now.”
He shifted his grip. “Such talk. I will not release my hostage, and I promise you I will kill her if you follow me.”
“I fancy that you’ll kill her even if we don’t,” Tadanobu said.
He laughed again. “Perhaps you are right. In which case your choice is whether her blood will be on my hands or yours. Which do you prefer?”
The monk was looking at us. He should have been looking at Kasumi. She still looked puzzled, only now she appeared to be annoyed as well. The change started about then.
“Kasumi,” I said, speaking directly to the girl, “This is a bad man. He wants to hurt you. Do you understand?”
“A bad man,” she repeated.
“You met another bad man before, didn’t you, here at the entrance to the valley? I think you did.”
She concentrated. “I remember. A bad man. He tried to hurt me.”
“I know she’s simple,” the monk said, “but is it really a kindness to explain her situation to her?”
“Oh, I think she understands her situation perfectly. It is you, Sir Monk, who aren’t clear on the matter, so for your own sake I’m going to tell you one more time—let her go.”
Whatever he was going to say was left unfinished. He screamed and dropped his dagger, clutching at his wrist which was already dripping blood. Tadanobu drew his bow to shoot him then, but he did not have a clear target. Kasumi’s long, thick hair rose behind her, spread wide, and covered the monk, the strands wrapping around him like so many black snakes. At the end of each strand was what looked like a hooked spike of black iron that whipped back and thrust forward, impaling the monk wherever they struck, whether he wore armor in that spot or not.
“Ah—” was all he managed before three heavy barbed strands struck through his open mouth and emerged, covered with blood and gobbets of flesh, from the back of his head. Kasumi’s hair whipped about her as if driven by the force of a thunderstorm, and all the barbs, thousands by now, struck the monk at once, running him through. Then they withdrew, and as they were all that was holding the body up at that point, the remains of the warrior monk crashed to the ground. His blood seeped into the darkness of Kasumi’s hair and disappeared like water into sand.
“A very bad man,” Kasumi said, her face now a twisted parody of a human woman’s and her voice as terrible as that of any other monster. I thought Tadanobu was going to turn his bow on her, but for a moment he was too stunned to do anything, and I asserted control of the moment before it slipped away.
“Yes, Kasumi-chan. But he’s gone now. You’re safe. Everything is all right.”
She smiled at me, and then she was Kasumi again, and her long hair was back where it belonged, draping her chest and shoulders and back. She picked up a fallen ribbon and tied her hair back as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.
“Now we know what happened to Kintaro,” Tadanobu said. He slowly lowered his bow but kept it at the ready.
I nodded. “Given the odd circumstances of Kintaro’s death and the... unusual, aspects of Kasumi’s appearance, I strongly suspected her true nature. Kasumi is a harionna, a barbed-hair demon, but like most of the other inhabitants of this estate, not a typical one. Since, as seems certain, Kintaro was in league with our late friend here, he arrived at the entrance to the estate completely unharmed. Unfortunately for him, he then spied the lovely Kasumi and thought he would start abusing his authority right away. That was a mistake.”
Kasumi didn’t seem to be paying us much attention. “I need to dig now,” she said. “Mistress Aiko depends on me.”
“That’s fine, Kasumi-chan. We’re leaving now, so this is good-bye. When you do go back to the house, tell Mistress Aiko that I said this time please remove the bad man before anyone else finds him. All right?”
She bowed. “I’ll remember. I’ll tell her. Good-bye.”
We set off down the road, relatively certain that we would not be attacked on our way back to the Capital. We hadn’t gone too far before Kenji spoke up.
“Lord Yamada, this is insane!”
“Which part?” I asked.
“While I understand that you have a little more experience with her kind than I do, are you really going to trust the running of your estate to a fox?”
I smiled. “Why not? Lord Yasunori did for over thirty years, and it worked out well. More to the point, I do trust a fox—I trust a fox to do what is in the fox’s interest. Lord Yasunori and Mistress Aiko created a haven here for herself and creatures like her. This way, she gets to keep it.”
“At least until the temple intervenes,” Kenji said.
“They won’t. While you two were preparing to leave, I also instructed Mistress Aiko to make a yearly donation of the bulk of the steward’s portion to Eryaku-ji.”
For a moment Kenji and Tadanobu just stared at me.
“Lord Yamada, have you lost your mind? After all that has happened, how could you reward the temple for its crimes?!” Tadanobu asked bitterly.
Kenji just shook his head. “I asked you once if you were tired of being poor,” he said. “The answer to that is ‘apparently not.’”
I smiled then. “Have sense, both of you—Enryaku-ji doesn’t want control of the estate, they want the income. You said it yourself, Kenji—even without a physical threat, how long could I have held onto the stewardship against the temple’s political influence? A year? Perhaps two? Sooner or later my commission would have been rescinded, and what do you think would have happened to Mistress Aiko and Kasumi-chan then? Tadanobu, would your uncle have approved?”
Tadanobu opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. He finally managed a wry smile. “No. He would not have. Nor would I.”
“This way your uncle’s legacy is preserved, and I receive a regular stipend for perhaps many years to come. A much smaller one, to be sure, but it is more than I had. Besides, I rather like the idea of kitsune and youkai and those other charming monsters living in peace right under the temple’s nose.”
“There is that,” Kenji said. “And yet I was so looking forward to having a rich friend. Still, and Mistress Aiko aside, what makes you think you can trust the temple to leave well enough alone?”
“As with Mistress Aiko—I trust them to do what best serves their interest. They have what they want.”
“Exactly the same as the fox,” Tadanobu said, smiling.
“Not exactly the same,” I said, considering the matter. “The fox deserves it.”