As we entered the upscale district with Yamagata’s Kyoto residence, Shimoko hid behind me. The imposing, fenced-in dwellings, with perfectly manicured trees hinting at beautiful gardens beyond, made me jittery. And I’d been to this area of Kyoto before. Good thing that I’d had the coinage to buy us new clothes to be presented to Yamagata.
It was common for women to walk behind a man. The man was a woman’s defense, after all. But Shimoko hid her face with the fine outer kimono she draped over her head, protecting her from the cool weather. Her voice squeaked as she whispered, “You are comfortable among the aristocracy?”
I chuckled. “Not really, but I can manage being around Yamagata-sama. He’s proper when needed, but relaxed in private. I think you’ll like him.”
“I’m just glad I don’t have to go to the Imperial Court.”
“Trust me. I’ll be trembling as I walk in.”
“You? The one who faced my wrath with such bravery?”
“Shimoko-chan, my knees knocked so loud I could have sworn it echoed through the entire valley.”
That brought a snicker. “Husband, you say the most ridiculous things.”
While I knew in my heart she was my wife, this was the first time she referred to me as her husband. Warmth filled my chest. If we weren’t at Yamagata’s gate, I would have whisked her off to a quiet alley and kissed her for the endearment.
We just had to keep her yokai identity a secret. And there wasn't a way I could take her with me to the palace, no matter how much I wanted to. If something happened and they deemed her a threat to the Emperor, it would be the end of us both. Shimoko understood that.
We entered the gate to Yamagata’s residence, and I added a confidence I didn’t feel to my stride as we climbed the steps to his home.
“Yamagata-sama is awaiting your presence,” the armored guard said.
I glanced back to be sure Shimoko was close behind. She bared her face, though she flinched as she took in the weapons the guards carried.
“Please direct me and my wife to him.” I hadn’t been to his house in the capital before. It didn’t help my nerves that I was bringing a yuki onna to visit our daimyou. But I had to show I trusted her.
When we entered an ornate room, Yamagata stood staring out into his immaculate garden. Shimoko let out an involuntary gasp just as the guard announced us. So, I put a hand on her back to offer comfort. She whispered, “I’ve never seen such a beautiful place.”
Yamagata smiled as he gestured for us to take a seat. He’d gained some streaks of grey in his hair and crow’s feet that accented his kind expression since I last saw him. “Usami-san, you didn’t mention in your letters that you married. I believe she could rival the beauty of the courtesans.”
Shimoko’s cheeks flushed, and she hid behind her fan.
“Is she the reason for your delay?” Yamagata asked as his servant poured tea.
Swallowing, I nodded. Shimoko shot me a look of pure panic from behind the fan that shielded her from Yamagata. She was even paler. We’d not tested what happened to her under stress. Perhaps we should have. Too late now.
But I’d prepared a palatable version of the story where Shimoko and I were both stuck in a snowstorm, yet she was still the inspiration for the most important discovery in my music. Applying magic to my emotions as I played helped warm us both from a near frozen state, or so I said. That was as close to the truth as I dared.
When the story concluded, she glanced away shyly with the slightest hint of a smile on her lips. How could I not keep her secret? She was dear to me, yokai or not.
Yamagata cleared his throat. “An enchanting tale. I expect my courier back from the Imperial Court any time now to fetch us for your performance.”
What might happen if I left Shimoko here without charging her up with my music’s magic? The blood drained from my face and I bowed. “Yamagata-sama, please let me practice. It’s been a long time since I played for the aristocracy.”
“Of course. You need to rest from your travels. My servant will show you to your room and bring refreshments. Remember, the Court runs on its own time. It may be days.”
And it may be mere moments. “Thank you.” I had to act fast, because as pale as my wife looked, her yokai tendencies might take over.
Once on our own, we both collapsed onto the cushions at the table. The stress had drained us both. I offered the plate of tea treats to Shimoko, but she shook her head. Not a good sign.
I’d not played music for her where anyone else could hear. As if to taunt me, the new song I’d planned to play for her flitted from my head. Why now? She needs the magic of the music! Maybe she’d like a different one? “Wife, what song would you like me to play?”
She pursed her lips. “The one you played when you discovered the strongest magic for your music. The one you played with your heart.”
That one I’d always remember. Though, I swore to myself I’d write down the new song for her when I could. Playing the request filled our room with a warm glow that revived us. The shuffling of feet outside stopped.
Nosy servants! They shouldn’t listen in. But the song had overtaken me. My music was helping Shimoko.
That evening, I received the summons to the Imperial Court.