“I trust you brought your spirit wards?”

Kenji looked insulted. “Of course, Lord Yamada.”

We were in Tamba Province at the request of Prince Kanemore, in aid of Lord Taira no Hitoshi. Specifically, to investigate strange sounds, odd lights, and ghostly apparitions at a small lake on the edge of his estates.

That lake had once been claimed by his neighbor Lord Hondo no Tadayuki, until a festering border dispute had been legally settled in Lord Hitoshi’s favor. Relations between the two daimyo had been strained since, though so far with nothing more serious than a minor skirmish at one of Lord Hitoshi’s border stations. Yet these affairs often went from minor to major very quickly. Part of our mission was to see that this did not happen.

“I only raise the subject to remind you that ghosts, if that is indeed what we’re dealing with, can be a delicate matter. This one more than most.”

“I presume you’re referring to Lord Tadayuki’s late wife?” Kenji asked.

“Of course.”

Lake Aoi was rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a woman. Since the lake, before its change of ownership, had been a favorite spot of Lord Tadayuki’s late wife, Yumiko, naturally many people assumed the spirit was hers. Aside from that, there were strange sounds and rumblings from near the lake that no one could identify.

Kenji sighed. “Hitoshi-sama made it very clear the situation is awkward, and I know full well an exorcism might not be diplomatically appropriate. That a priest in Lord Hitoshi’s employ performed an exorcism on Lord Tadayuki’s late wife would likely not sit well with him, even if well-meant. Given that, why am I even here?”

I smiled. “That’s your own doing. Would you like to leave?”

I already knew the answer. Kenji, once an itinerant priest, was now the abbot of his own small temple, albeit established on my own estates at Kamakura. Yet it was popular among the farmers, which had led Kenji, like myself, into being responsible for more than we ever imagined... or wanted. We both needed more useful—and interesting—occupation. When my old friend Prince Kanemore’s request had come to me, I was happy to oblige. I would have asked Kenji to come as well but never had the chance—he had already heard and volunteered immediately. We were both here because we wanted to be. One question remained—what had we gotten ourselves into?

We had taken leave of Lord Hitoshi that afternoon, after a very brief audience regarding the situation involving both Lord Tadayuki and the seemingly haunted lake. Now we headed toward the lake on foot as dusk approached. Ghosts, I knew, were not necessarily the only creatures we might have to contend with, but I had my tachi and Kenji his stout priest’s staff with heavy brass crown and rings. Kenji also had his wards, proof against most yōkai and minor devils.

“My lady would scold me for being without escort,” I said. “But I think we’re prepared.”

“Unless the dragon appears,” Kenji said. “I don’t have a ward for that.”

I frowned. “What about dragons? Is that another rumor?”

Kenji glanced at me. “You didn’t know? There’s a story that a dragon sleeps in a cavern beneath Lake Aoi, coiled around a throne of gold.”

“That seems unlikely,” I said.

He shrugged. “There are those who are convinced the stories are true. It was widely assumed that part of the acrimony between the two lords was the struggle to decide who would possess this treasure. The lake was incidental.”

“Rubbish. ‘This bit of land’ and ‘that bit of land’ is more than enough excuse. I’ve seen daimyos take up arms over less. Yet I hadn’t heard that particular rumor. How are you so well informed?”

“Oh, please, Lord Yamada. I’m a priest. We hear things. Almost before anyone else.”

I had no answer for that. We topped a small rise, and Lake Aoi appeared before us, with the setting sun striking fire across the water. The lake was perhaps two bowshots across and twice that long. Bigger than a pond, certainly, though nothing like Lake Biwa near the Capital, which extended for leagues.

“It is lovely,” Kenji said. “I can see how Yumiko-sama might have been captivated by this place, but if she’s here, her soul must be persuaded to move on. Attachments to the physical world will hinder her spiritual progress; whether she proceeds to one of the hells or heavens is her karma.”

I could hear the sincerity and concern in Kenji’s voice, and I knew it was not falsely offered. As we got closer, we saw nothing out of the ordinary, either out on the water or along the shoreline, other than an aosaginohi standing in the shallows. Like all aosaginohi, it glowed in the fading light, appearing as a heron-shaped lantern come to life, but at our approach it made a brief chittering sound and disappeared.

“Shy creature,” Kenji said.

“And unlike many of its ilk, completely harmless. May they all be of that sort, especially whatever is responsible for our being here.”

“There is a first for all things,” Kenji said, but he did not sound optimistic.

We had stopped earlier that afternoon along our journey at a small farming village on the estate, some of whose residents were not above supplementing their rice with fish from the lake and some who were also in service at Lord Hitoshi’s mansion, but none could be persuaded to accompany us to the lakeshore near sunset. We did manage to elicit a description of the specter, apparently a very regal-looking lady, and where it tended to manifest. However, no one present had ever seen Lady Yumiko more than fleetingly and could not say for certain if this apparition was indeed her spirit. Lord Hitoshi himself could do so, only he was no more enthusiastic about visiting the lake after dark than his villagers.

“Understandable,” Kenji said. “If inconvenient.”

“Kenji, did you ever meet Lady Yumiko?”

“I’m afraid not. Since we have no reliable witnesses, it may make identifying the ghost... problematic.”

Regardless, I knew from long experience that yūrei could take on shapes not their own in the course of settling unfinished earthly business. Yet what would it mean if the ghost did resemble Lady Yumiko, even—or perhaps especially—if the appearance was meant to deceive? There was simply too much I did not know.

“Do you see anything?” Kenji asked, as we stood together on the shoreline.

“Not at the moment. Do you sense anything?”

Over the years I had become more sensitive to the presence of spirits and yōkai than most, but Kenji was a trained priest, and his perception was keener than mine.

“Something fairly close by. I don’t know what, but it does not feel dangerous.”

The sun had set, but the light had not completely failed. The fire on the water had softened to a golden red glow. Under less pressing circumstances I would have taken the time to enjoy it, but we were on a mission. “The villagers all say the spirit is mostly seen near the north shore. Let us go there.”

We followed the shore from the south to the north, through a small grove of maple trees and along a well-worn path to the other side. From there we could see that the lake was fed by a small waterfall closer to the eastern end. Behind us a long, rectangular shadow rose that stretched for some distance east and west, and I looked closer.

“It’s a wooden barrier. Is this the border with Lord Tadayuki’s estate?”

“After the border was moved; that is my understanding,” Kenji said.

The distance from the barrier to the lake was no more than a bowshot. The barrier itself was made of tall posts with wooden laths woven between them. It had a single barred gate flanked by archer platforms, though unmanned. “Defensible, at need. I presume this was Lord Hitoshi’s doing?”

“More than likely, though whether as a practical matter or as a message to Lord Tadayuki, I would not speculate,” Kenji said. He paused and he looked away from the barrier. We both noticed that the area immediately around the lake had fallen silent. There were no crickets, no frog song. “Lord Yamada....”

“I see it.”

“It” appeared to be a white mist forming at the base of the waterfall. We were too far away to see it clearly, but the mist obligingly moved in our direction, slowly floating over the water, and as it moved, it coalesced, becoming less mist-like and more like the shape of a human woman. Kenji reached for a ward but simply held it, as one would a weapon at ready. For my part, I simply watched, and as I did, something else caught my attention.

“Kenji, do you hear that?”

Kenji took his eyes off the apparition long enough to glance at me, then at the ground.

“I do... it sounds like something large stirring, deep underground. It’s faint; I presume the normal night sounds masked it before.”

“Your dragon, perhaps?”

“I do not know... look, something’s happening!”

The last bit was uttered in a harsh whisper, and I looked back at the lake. The apparition was now fully formed and no more than about forty paces from us, floating over the water near the north shore. It appeared to be a woman of about thirty, with long black hair tied in a ribbon. She wore court dress, with a delicate brocade kimono and Chinese-style jacket of blue silk embroidered in wave patterns. She was turned sideways to us so her face was difficult to see, but I could tell her eyes were large and dark.

Too large for a human, but not terribly unusual for a yūrei.

“I know what we both plainly see, Kenji. What do you sense?”

“It is a spirit, Lord Yamada... but—” He stopped.

“But what?”

“I do not know what sort. A ghost? I am unsure. And what is she doing?”

I was as puzzled as Kenji. The apparition was kneeling on the water as one would a cushion and appeared to be staring at something on the surface, though in the poor light we could see nothing other than herself on the water. After a few moments she turned and looked directly at the pair of us. One more moment, and she was gone. With her disappearance, the normal sounds of the night returned.

“Well,” Kenji said finally. “That was odd. What should we do now?”

“This will likely be awkward, but I strongly suspect we need to go have a talk with Lord Tadayuki.”

I wasn’t wrong about the meeting being awkward, but at least Lord Tadayuki agreed to see us the following morning. We were escorted into his hall where he, a thick-bodied man of about fifty, sat on a raised dais, his ornate war sword prominently displayed on a stand beside him.

“I know you are here on Hitoshi’s behalf,” he said without preamble. “But under Prince Kanemore’s remit. Which is the only reason I’ve agreed to meet you. I do admit, however, to some curiosity as to what you want.”

I bowed. “I trust you’ve heard of the rumors surrounding that bit of land... once in dispute.”

He grunted, and a fleeting smile passed his lips. “If you mean the lake, it still is in dispute, in my view, though I admit that so far the law has not been in my favor. What of it?”

“My lord, I speak of the rumor relating to your late wife’s presence,” Kenji said. “If such does turn out to be true, surely you realize she cannot remain bound to this earth.”

“To that lake, you mean. Sometimes I think she cared more for it than she ever did for me,” Tadayuki said, sounding wistful. “Regardless, I do not wish her spirit to suffer. I assume you’re diplomatically asking if I would object to her exorcism?”

“That is certainly part of the reason,” I said.

“I have no objection, though I doubt this would have happened if the lake hadn’t been removed from my estates in the first place... still, no matter. I would like to know what your other reasons may be.”

“I assume you’re aware of the legend surrounding Lake Aoi?” I asked.

Tadayuki’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You mean a dragon and a throne of gold? Total nonsense. Does Lord Hitoshi put any credence in that old fable?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Though I admit I was curious about your feelings on the matter.”

“Then I believe I’ve answered that question,” Lord Tadayuki said as he got to his feet, signaling the end of the audience. “Was there anything else?”

“No, my lord,” I said. “You have been most helpful.”

Lord Hitoshi had kindly offered us the use of a pair of horses during our investigation. While I was somewhat more comfortable these days on horseback than once was the case, I still found walking more helpful for thinking, and silence most helpful of all. I was quiet most of the way back to Lord Hitoshi’s estates, and my silences always had a way of getting under Kenji’s skin.

“What is going on in that mind of yours?” he asked when he could stand it no longer.

“I think Lord Tadayuki is hiding something.”

“About his wife? My understanding is she died of a fever. He has yet to remarry.”

“About something. Whether his wife or her ghost is involved, I do not know... on a related subject, what else do you know about the legends of the dragon under Lake Aoi?”

He considered. “There are no further details I’m aware of, just that the legend exists. There is precedent, of course. There’s a quite similar story about a dragon sleeping under Sarasawa Pond.”

“The sacred pond near Kojufuji Temple in Nara?”

“The same. There was a rumor some years ago that the dragon was about to emerge, and vast crowds turned out to see it.”

“What happened?”

Kenji smiled. “Nothing. The dragon hasn’t appeared, to this day.”

“But the people believed it to be there,” I said.

Kenji shrugged. “Believed? I think many still do, and why not? You and I have seen things just as strange and unlikely. A dragon sleeping beneath a pond isn’t beyond belief, even granted that we’ve never actually seen one.”

I stroked my chin. “That is true.”

Kenji gave me a hard look. “You say that as if it were a point of some importance.”

“Perhaps it is. I do not know as of yet. Let’s get back to the lake while it is still daylight. There is something I want to see.”

Kenji was clearly intrigued, but he managed to hold his tongue until we reached the shores of the lake. On the westernmost shore we had previously noted some boats used by the residents of the village we had passed through. We borrowed one of the boats and set out into the lake, though Kenji was a bit apprehensive.

“Are you planning on meeting the ghost out on the lake itself? Are you planning on getting us drowned?”

“I’m planning on seeing what she was looking at. It was about here... ah! See it?”

Kenji did. A small disturbance on the surface of the water, invisible from our previous vantage point on shore. It looked like a small eddy at first, but after a few moments I realized it was, in fact, a stable uzumaki—a small whirlpool no broader than the width of my hand.

“I thought she was just looking at the water,” Kenji said.

“Then one must ask why at that particular spot. The water’s surface would look rather much the same anywhere else on the lake, would it not? Why here?”

“We’re too far from the waterfall for this to be caused by a current,” Kenji said.

“True,” I said.

“Do you think... it could be the dragon awakening?

“I admit that possibility. Yet let us put this boat back to shore and see if there is another possibility we’ve overlooked.”

After we returned the boat to its proper place, we walked back to the north shore, the one closest to the border barrier, and waited.

“Lord Yamada—” Kenji began, but I raised a hand for silence. After a moment or two I heard the faint sounds again, coming from the earth beneath us. I recognized it as a sort of chuffing and clicking sound, repeated in rhythmic fashion but not completely in lockstep.

“Kenji, assuming a dragon was indeed stirring and twitching beneath our feet, what sort of sounds do you think it would make?”

“I would guess rumbling, and an occasional shudder of the earth.”

“And are those the kind of sounds we are hearing?”

He frowned. “No, Lord Yamada, they are not.”

“Kenji, my friend, I think we had best go see if that gate in the barrier actually works. We need to visit Lord Tadayuki’s estate one more time. There’s something I need to see.”

I was the first back to the lake, and now I didn’t need a boat to see that the formerly small whirlpool had grown to the size of a drum and was getting larger moment by moment. Kenji finally returned through the gate, a little out of breath.

“Is everyone out of the tunnel?” I asked. It was a point of some concern, as Lord Tadayuki’s miners had needed some persuasion to understand their imminent danger. After all, to bore a tunnel from Tadayuki’s estate on the other side of the barrier all the way to the lake was a great deal of work.

“I-I think so. The miners had seen the water coming in, but it wasn’t very much at that point. Their leader thought it was an underground spring.”

“I can only hope they believed us, else Lord Tadayuki is about to lose several good men. Did you send my message?” I asked.

Kenji nodded. “They had a courier. I presume, to bring their master progress updates. Lord Tadayuki should be receiving it shortly. What did you tell him, by the way?”

“Only that I intend to keep his involvement in this scheme a secret, for the sake of the peace. If Lord Hitoshi ever found out, there would be trouble, and the last thing the Emperor needs is another open war among his vassals. I think Prince Kanemore would agree.”

“Not to belabor the point, but how did you know about the tunnel?”

“In the first place, you’re a priest, whatever your failings might be. There was no way you’d be in the presence of a ghost and not know it, so the apparition we saw could not possibly be Lord Tadayuki’s late wife. What then? The obvious answer was a water spirit, likely the kami of this lake herself. As for the dragon, one might expect a disturbance within the earth, as you pointed out and we overheard. One would not, however, expect it to sound more like men digging than a dragon turning in its sleep.”

Kenji smiled a faint smile. “So Lord Tadayuki truly believed the story of the dragon and the golden throne, despite his protestations?”

“If he could not have the lake, a throne of gold would make a fine substitute. How he thought he would deal with the dragon, I do not know. Nor does it matter. Whether there is a dragon in a chamber under the lake or not, Tadayuki’s men tunneled too shallow and compromised the lake itself. The uzumaki is growing, and it is about to get a lot bigger.”

As we watched, the truth of my words became more and more apparent. The whirlpool was growing by the moment, and the spin of the water was getting faster and faster. Now I could hear it, the rushing of water almost as if I stood on the shore of the ocean.

“So the kami was trying to warn us,” Kenji said.

“Or warn anyone with sense enough to pay attention.”

Now the whirlpool was as large as a man was tall, and then as two men, and the roar of rushing water was almost deafening. The apparition appeared again, standing on the water near the edge. She seemed a little sad.

“We weren’t able to stop the digging in time,” Kenji shouted above the din. “Likely she’s doomed. Once the lake drains completely, she’ll be gone, even if the lake eventually refills.”

“For her sake and Lord Tadayuki’s, I hope not. Let’s wait, but I suggest we move farther up the bank. The lake isn’t the only point of danger.”

Indeed, there were further rumblings beneath the earth as the maelstrom grew. Already the water level in the lake had dropped by the height of a man. There was one final crash, and the ground itself shook as if the dragon truly was breaking free.

“Ah. That will be the tunnel collapsing... if we are lucky.”

So it proved. The uzumaki likewise turned erratic and collapsed in on itself, then disappeared as the outflow from the lake ceased. I addressed the spirit directly.

“Your waterfall will renew the lake soon enough, now that the drain has been sealed.”

The apparition placed her hands together and bowed in our direction, a bow which we returned before she disappeared. Soon all was silent again, for a little while, before the chorus of crickets and frogs returned. I started along the shore toward Lord Hitoshi’s mansion, Kenji following closely behind.

“Lord Yamada, it’s all well and good to keep Lord Tadayuki’s involvement out of this, but what are we going to tell Lord Hitoshi? You think he won’t notice half of Lake Aoi is missing?”

“No doubt he will, and of course we must tell him something.”

“Such as?”

I smiled. “Well, I was rather leaning toward the dragon.”

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